Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marked America’s Presidents Day February 17 by lecturing to a visiting group of American presidents in Jerusalem.
No, Bibi didn’t have any actual occupants of the White House to wag his finger at this time. But he had the next best thing: the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. A 40-member delegation was in town for its annual mission to Israel.
The prime minister addressed three urgent issues. He offered a gloomy assessment of Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, savaged the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran and described advocates of boycotting Israel as “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”
“In the past anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses,” he said, “and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state.”
He issued two appeals for action. One was a stern call to “fight back” against boycott advocates, “to delegitimize the delegitimizers.”
The other was to renew the recently suspended battle against White House policy on Iran. This could be dynamite.
Netanyahu wants the Iran battle fought on two fronts. One is to change the agenda of the Iran nuclear negotiations, which began February 18 in Vienna. The talks are aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program, preventing it from producing weapons-grade uranium and building a bomb. Not enough, Netanyahu said. They must “prevent Iran from having the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons” by dismantling its enrichment facilities. “They don’t need any centrifuges and they don’t have a right to enrichment,” he said, to audience applause.
“This is something that requires firmness and clarity,” he added. “It may not be fashionable, but it’s the right thing.”
Secondly, the way to achieve that is to increase “political pressure” and “economic pressure” on Iran. But Iran received the opposite, “easing of sanctions.” That must be reversed. “For a peaceful solution to succeed you need more, not less, pressure.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).