WASHINGTON — With his approval ratings plummeting, President Bush took his case for war in Iraq and a wider fight against terrorism to the annual Aipac convention — and was rewarded with more than 20 standing ovations from thousands of cheering delegates.
The applause came despite Bush’s failure to quell Israeli worries that, in the face of international pressure, he was backtracking from assurances he had provided Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before Likud voters rejected his disengagement plan. In his speech, Bush hailed Sharon’s plan but failed to mention his earlier claims that Israel would not be expected to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines in the West Bank or to absorb Palestinian refugees as part of a final peace settlement.
Most of the crowd, however, appeared to be won over by Bush’s unflinching insistence that Jerusalem and Washington were allied in one war against terrorism.
Bush addressed Aipac leaders and Israeli government ministers by their first names as he opened his speech, and then exclaimed, “Our nation is stronger and safer because we have a true and dependable ally in Israel.” When the crowd burst out in applause, Bush chuckled: “I’m just getting warmed up.”
The president received thunderous applause when he declared, “Every terrorist is at war with civilization,” that “we will stay on the offensive until the terrorists are stopped and our people are safe,” and that Israel “has every right to defend itself from terror.”
Bush devoted a considerable portion of his speech to recent wave of antisemitism that is sweeping Europe. Alluding to the experience of the Holocaust, Bush said that Jews have seen in the past how “hate prepares the way for violence.” He urged Arab governments to “end libels and incitements” in their media, and vowed to “call upon our friends in Europe to renounce and fight any sign of antisemitism in their midst.”
Bush’s reference to antisemitism and hatred echoed a recurring theme at the conference: the threat of European and radical Islamist hatred of Israel and Jews worldwide. Hammering home the issue, Aipac’s executive director, Howard Kohr, in an ominous “state of Aipac” speech, made several references to the Holocaust. “History has proven that it is not a distant leap from de-legitimization to degradation to denial to the unthinkable,” said Kohr. “First they decided you may not live among us as Jews… then they decided you may not live among us, finally they decreed you may not live.” He continued, “None of us, none of us can begin to understand the incredible importance of the U.S. and what it means to Israel today, unless we understand that global context first.”