Watching Benjamin Netanyahu speak at AIPAC is a lot like watching a superstar athlete perform in front of his home crowd. Indeed, Israel’s most Americanized prime minister is more popular here than with his own Likud party’s central committee. Perhaps that’s why Netanyahu chose this forum to go farther than ever before to pitch peace, painting a picture that would have been vigorously challenged by the Israeli right had he been speaking in the Knesset. After thanking the thousands of activists for nurturing “the most precious alliance in the world” and reiterating his call for more international pressure on Iran, the Israeli leader made his case for an end to the conflict.
“Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians,” Netanyahu opened. “But peace would also open up the possibility of establishing formal ties between Israel and leading countries in the Arab world. Many Arab leaders–and believe me, this is a fact, not a hypothesis, it’s a fact–many Arab leaders today already realize that Israel is not their enemy, that peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships.”
With these words, Netanyahu for the first time echoed his one-time nemesis, Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has argued that reconciliation with the Palestinians would bring about a “new Middle East” of mutually beneficial economic and technological cooperation. As one long-time conference attendee put it to me, “that was the most hopeful speech I’ve ever heard [Netanyahu] give.”
The prime minister went on to outline his stipulations for a peace agreement, with intensity and specificity that suggested such an agreement was a distinct and impending possibility. And he thanked “the indomitable John Kerry” for his tireless efforts to broker it. (Ron Kampeas, the editor of JTA, soon quipped, “Never imagined an AIPAC crowd to Bibi’s right.”)
Netanyahu then offered a blistering broadside against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and its “gullible fellow travelers,” whose initials—BDS—he refashioned as “bigotry, dishonesty and shame.” “The BDS movement is not about legitimate criticism, it’s about making Israel illegitimate,” Netanyahu said, in a nod to the fact that many of the movement’s leaders openly advocate the elimination of the world’s only Jewish state. “It presents a distorted and twisted picture of Israel to the naive and to the ignorant.”
“Throughout history, people believed the most outrageously absurd things about the Jews—that we were using the blood of children to bake matzos, that we were spreading the plague throughout Europe, that we were plotting to take over the world,” Netanyahu went on. “How could educated people today believe the nonsense spewed by BDS about Israel? Well, that shouldn’t surprise you either. Some of history’s most influential thinkers and writers—Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, many, many others—spread the most preposterous lies about the Jewish people. It’s hard to shed prejudices that have been ingrained in consciousness over millennia. And from antiquity to the Middle Ages to modern times, Jews were boycotted, discriminated against and singled out.”
He ended with a call to action that echoed the earlier words of Sen. Chuck Schumer: “Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted.” Successful politicians elevate enemies they know they can beat, and clearly, Netanyahu and AIPAC think that is the BDS movement—likely encouraged by the wall-to-wall condemnation of the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel and the outspoken rejection of BDS by Scarlett Johansson. Whether they can bring this influence to bear on an international community that is far more sympathetic to the anti-Zionist movement remains to be seen.
Having established the BDS movement as an avatar of moral malice, Netanyahu closed with an assertion of the righteousness of Israel’s cause. “We stand together on the right side of the moral divide. We stand together on the right side of history,” he exhorted the crowd. “So stand tall, stand strong, stand proud.”