Prime Minister Netanyahu’s keynote address to the AIPAC Policy Conference last night was a thing of beauty. He was funny; he was serious. He was corny; he was clever. (Sometimes he was both: a riff on a “nuclear duck” was actually quite convincing.) He was bellicose; he was, in several senses, disarming. When it came time to begin the meat of the speech, he said, “I’d like to talk to you about a subject no one has been talking about recently”—he got the crowd to laugh at Iran … and then to cheer as he compared Iran’s nuclear facilities to Auschwitz and pledged, “As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation.” He made you feel as though you had inside information and understanding. He made the audience of American Jews—with whom he has always been more popular and had a better rapport than Israelis—feel like he was one of them, only more so. It was a tour de force. It was the whole megillah.
Speaking of which: with explicit references even to the “Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people,” He Who Shall Not Be Named of the upcoming festival of Purim, Netanyahu was, at the least, readying the audience—a crowd of easily more than 10,000, including most federal elected officials, in the massive hangar-like space of the Washington Convention Center, who gave standing ovations several times when the house lights went on—for what could be an imminent Israeli strike.
Did Bibi say “Never again”? Bibi said “Never again.”
“Wars happen when leaders burn their bridges,” Haaretz editor Aluf Benn tweeted. “Can Bibi come home and just forget it after making the 1944 case?”
“While no decision has been made at the White House today according to U.S. and Israeli officials,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last night, “his speech seems to have done more than anything until now to prepare people for the prospects of an attack—unless preempted by a U.S. strike.” He added, “Netanyahu’s tone suggests an Israeli strike is increasingly likely.”
At the same time, Netanyahu appeared to try to paper over the daylight that undeniably remains between his position on Iran and the Obama administration’s. Having secured from President Obama, as he did, the public declaration that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a sovereign decision for Israel to make, and having reiterated it, he perhaps felt freer to say, “[Obama] stated clearly that all options remain on the table, and that American policy is not containment. Well, Israel has the same policy.” Later, he added, “I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, and these sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy.”
In short, he said everything and nothing. Israel could strike tomorrow or strike never, and either way, Bibi could plausibly say afterward, “I warned you.”
Make no mistake: daylight remains. At the White House today, Obama stated, “We still believe there is a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution.” More importantly, the crucial difference has not changed. For Israel (as for AIPAC), the red line is an Iran capable of producing a weapon. Yet a senior administration official said yesterday, “Our red line is a nuclear weapon, and we didn’t change our policy.” And a senior administration official—possibly the same one—added, “Our assessment is that they have not made a decision. While I can’t say for sure that we bought time, I think they certainly feel more assured about our intentions. They can say and feel that the ball had moved forward in that respect.”
(Netanyahu’s references to other issues—Syria, internal Israeli politics, oh and the Palestinians and the peace process—merit a brief parenthetical.)
Yet Netanyahu didn’t speak of capability in his speech. He made deeper appeals. He flashed two letters from 1944: one sent by the World Jewish Congress; the other a response by the U.S. War Department. The former asked the U.S. to bomb the death factory at Auschwitz; the latter declined the request. “And I quote,” Netanyahu quoted: “Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”
“My Friends, 2012 is not 1944,” he continued. “The American government today is different. You heard it in President Obama’s speech yesterday. But here’s my point.
“The Jewish people are also different. Today we have a state of our own. The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
(Whether 2012 might not be 1944 for other reasons—because Auschwitz was already in operation, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews and eventually a million Jews, whereas Iran has not yet decided even to make its weapon of mass destruction, its Auschwitz, much less has made it and decided to use it—is a nuance that went unexplored.)
Meanwhile, Bibi played the crowd, calling out various delegations (Florida, New York, Wisconsin, and California, in that order); wishing Sen. Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois and a strong Israel backer who recently suffered a stroke, a full recovery. He was charming. He was almost Clintonesque in his ability to reach the audience—only funnier.
Oh, and the nuclear duck? That came from this passage:
Iran claims that it’s enriching uranium to develop medical research. Yeah, right. A country that builds underground nuclear facilities, develops intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactures thousands of centrifuges, and absorbs crippling sanctions—is doing all that in order to advance … medical research. So you see, when that Iranian ICBM is flying through the air to a location near you, you’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s only carrying medical isotopes.
Ladies and Gentlemen, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? That’s right, it’s a duck—but this duck is a nuclear duck. And it’s time the world started calling a duck a duck.
You had to be there. You really had to be there.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.