Benjamin Netanyahu Tells AIPAC To Put Its Head In a Noose

Pushing American Jews To Take Unpopular Stand on Iran

Straight Face: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the opening of the Conference of Presidents 40th Annual Leadership Mission to Israel, on February 17.
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Straight Face: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the opening of the Conference of Presidents 40th Annual Leadership Mission to Israel, on February 17.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 21, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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Bibi isn’t known for understatement, but “not fashionable” hardly captures the magnitude of his request. He essentially called on Jewish organizations to renew their confrontation with the White House over increased sanctions, just 11 days after the effort was publicly abandoned by AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

All 49 members of the Conference of Presidents have seats on AIPAC’s executive committee, so a call to the conference is a call to AIPAC.

The last confrontation centered on the interim agreement signed November 24 in Geneva, which set terms for formal negotiations. Iran agreed for the first time to freeze or reduce most nuclear activity during talks. In return the West lifted about 10% of sanctions. Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake.”

In mid-November two senators drafted a bill authorizing new sanctions. The White House objected furiously, saying it would drive Iran from the negotiating table, making war unavoidable. Fearing a veto, the bill’s sponsors, assisted by AIPAC lobbyists, worked to assemble a veto-proof two-thirds Senate majority. Opponents campaigned equally hard. Supporters claimed opponents employed anti-Semitic themes, suggesting pro-Israel advocates were warmongers. Some opponents indeed claimed the bill — specifically a clause recommending U.S. military support if Israel “is compelled to take military action” — empowered Israel to commit America to war.

The bill collapsed after President Obama vowed a veto in his January 28 State of the Union address, halting Democratic support. Both sides describe the episode as the worst defeat in decades for AIPAC and Washington Jewish advocacy in general, with serious implications for the limits of American Jewish power.

Not fashionable? Well, no — it’s not fashionable to put your head in a noose. Twice.

Bibi’s speech highlighted a weeklong flurry of Israel-Diaspora chatter in Jerusalem. Earlier on Monday, the Conference of Presidents heard from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, who also heads the little-known Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. He admitted he hadn’t known much about Diaspora-Israel relations until he entered the ministry last year. He warned that tensions between the liberal-leaning American Jewish religious streams and Israel’s Orthodox-dominated religious establishment — which he also heads as minister of religious affairs — won’t be fixed easily or soon. But he assured them he had their back.

Among Bennett’s reform ideas is a proposal, described in a JTA interview days earlier, for a sort of “semi-citizenship” for Diaspora Jews to participate in Israeli decisions. This promptly drew an online accusation of Jewish disloyalty from Louisiana ex-Klansman David Duke. As Bennett said, he doesn’t know much about Diaspora affairs.

Bennett also described a planned five-year initiative, costing $1.4 billion to the Israeli taxpayer — matched two-to-one by Diaspora donations, somehow — to strengthen Jewish identity. Afterward he joined the initiative’s co-sponsor, chairman Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency for Israel, on a media-heavy visit to the initiative’s headquarters. They watched a live computer chat in which Jews around the world were invited to discuss ways of spending the money. Some 1,500 participants logged onto the three-day chat, or about one ten-thousandth of the world Jewish population.

On Tuesday, the Knesset’s Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora committee posed for photographs at the headquarters of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a non-profit helping Jews immigrate to Israel. The Conference of Presidents heard from foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who warned that American Jews face a demographic catastrophe, far more urgent than any Washington agenda. He vowed to bring 3.5 million immigrants to Israel in the coming decade. He also announced a $365 million-per-year initiative to improve Diaspora Jewish education. Aides to Lieberman, Bennett and Sharansky spent the rest of the day arguing whether there were two initiatives or one.

A more serious argument centered on the boycott threat. Finance minister Yair Lapid, speaking Monday morning, said the threat arises from the world’s “losing patience” with Israel because of its continuing occupation of the West Bank. Failing to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians would “make our economy more vulnerable” to catastrophic boycotts.

The prime minister, of course, depicted boycotts as pure anti-Semitism, unrelated to Israeli policy. Thus they’re every Jew’s problem.

The urgency might have been undercut when Bibi went on to claim the boycotts were doomed to fail because of the international appeal of Israel’s entrepreneurial and technological creativity, which “is bigger than all these boycotters could possibly address.” That could defang anti-Semitism, making it harder to rally Jews to battle.

On the other hand, his new Iran mission just might fix that.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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