This morning at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a bleak image of expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East set against a thriving Israel united with the United States. In true Netanyahu fashion the speech was more upbeat than stern, and of course it included props.
Diving into Iran and equipped with a slide presentation, Netanyahu warned “Darkness is descending on our region. Iran is building an aggressive empire: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, more to come.” But, there are measures President Donald Trump is prepared to use to undermine Iran, Netanyahu said. Trump will sever the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered by the U.S. and five more countries “if the fatal flaws of the nuclear deal are not fixed.” He added, Trump “will walk away from the deal and restore sanctions. Israel will be right there by America’s side. And let me tell you, so will other countries in the region.”
“President Trump has made it clear that his administration will not accept Iran’s aggression in the region. He has made clear that he too will never accept a nuclear-armed Iran. That is the right policy,” Netanyahu continued.
In his harshest moments on stage, Netanyahu ramped up his rhetoric from previous condemnations of Iran. He made biblical comparisons to the Story of Ester, where Iran today was likened to the figure of Hamen, a loathsome oppressors of ancient Persian Jews who “attempt[ed] to exterminate our people. They failed then. They’ll fail now. We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons – not now, not in ten years, not ever.”
Making a second reference to King Cyrus over the past two days, a biblical king of Persia who sanctioned the rebuilding of a great Jewish temple in Jerusalem (the first mention was about Trump for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem) Netanyahu said the current “horrible tyranny” in Iran “will perish from the earth” and a new King Cyrus will arise in Iran, just like in the Bible.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded over social media:
Despite Netanyahu’s claims, the fact is that illegal occupation lies at the heart of most of the calamities in our region. Historically, occupying another’s land has never been sustainable. This occupation, too –and the apartheid system that perpetuates it– will not last long.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) March 6, 2018
Netanyahu also lauded Trump in this speech for the president’s “historic decision” to upgrade the U.S. Consulate annex in Jerusalem into an embassy.
“It’s especially great to be in america’s capital now that he’s recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” he said to wild applauses and whistles.
Nothing new in Netanyahu’s speech, but he showed off his speaking skills, which are unparalleled in the Israeli political sphere.
He looked very very happy to see a friendly crowd, while back in Israel, the focus is on his legal woes and there’s a coalition crisis.
— Lahav Harkov (@LahavHarkov) March 6, 2018
— Jacob Kornbluh (@jacobkornbluh) March 6, 2018
The audience of lawmakers, students, and movers and shakers in the foreign policy world, cheered on throughout the 30-minute speech. Netanyahu boasted of 18,000 attendees at the conference—he soaked up the praise. At times he was theatrical and self-aware of his own camp.
“Is it ok?” Netanyahu asked, “What the heck, I’m the prime minister.”
He then sauntered out to the wings of the stage carrying a white sheet of paper with a hand written note “1-800 How’s My Speech?” Cheers rolled in; the reception was as wild as it gets at a policy conference and Netanyahu shared it generously.
Through the speech Netanyahu honored by name a long list of friends, everyone from the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, to Jared Kushner, to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to the state of Texas, to “my friend, a great champion of Israel,”—Stephen Harper, who Netanyahu asked to stand up and share in the applause.
In what has become a hallmark of his speeches to American audiences, Netanyahu even managed a pun about a Clint Eastwood film, “The good, the bad, and the ugly.” In Netanyahu’s version, the good he explained, is Israeli innovation. “I just heard about an African woman in Africa who has to walk eight hours a day to give water to her children,” Netanyahu said, adding an Israeli company stepped in and resolved the burden, “they bring water from thin air” they bring water to Africa, isn’t that amazing?”
The bad, he elaborated, is a Palestinian program that pays stipends to the families of Palestinians convicted of security offenses, including the killings of Israeli citizens. (The Palestinian government has long described the payments as a form of welfare for families whose main income earner is imprisoned. But quietly last year the Abbas government ordered a stop to payments to incarcerated Palestinians affiliated with Hamas.)
An interactive Netanyahu polled the room, “raise your hand if you agree with me that President Abbas should stop paying terrorist to murder jews.”
“What message does this send to Palestinian children: it says murder jews and get rich,” he continued, “build lives, don’t pay death,” adding the Palestinians would be wise to “invest in peace.”
Outside of blasting the Palestinian leader, Netanyahu had scant words on reaching a deal with the Palestinians. Indeed a side event that took place in Washington a few blocks from the AIPAC convention yesterday afternoon indicates members of his government are lobbying U.S. officials to endorse annexation over the West Bank. The head of Israel’s settler movement and leading members of Netanyahu’s Likud party called for deepening U.S. ties to the settlements in the talk hosted by Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to “combat the de-legitimization of Israel through the embrace of Judea and Samaria.”