WASHINGTON (JTA) – Dogged by political scandal at home, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert headed here this week in search of a friendly crowd at the annual AIPAC policy conference.
While his tough talk on Iran drew strong applause from the pro-Israel audience, his calls for peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians fell flat.
Speaking to some 7,000 people Tuesday evening at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Olmert was interrupted by applause several times as he delivered a hawkish message against the Islamic Republic.
“Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any other country in the free world,” Olmert said in a line that drew a standing ovation. “The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means.”
Olmert called for “more drastic and robust measures” against Iran, including sanctions by individual countries, sanctions on countries that refine gasoline for Iran, the expulsion of Iranian businessmen from countries around the world and a ban on bank transfers to or from Iran.
“The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating,” he said.
The prime minister’s appearance before the pro-Israel lobby in Washington came at a somewhat awkward moment, with both Israel and the United States caught in political transition.
In Israel, political pundits already are writing Olmert’s political obituary following damning testimony last week that U.S. businessman Morris Talansky gave Olmert $150,000 in cash payments over the course of 13 years. Olmert has denied any wrongdoing.
In the United States, Olmert’s speech coincided with the end of the U.S. presidential primary season and Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) declaration of victory in the Democratic primaries over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Though he praised President Bush for his strong support for the Jewish state, Olmert was careful to emphasize the bipartisan nature of U.S. support for Israel. He deviated several times from prepared remarks distributed to reporters shortly before the speech to drive home this point, and he made note of the recent visit to Israel by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
Olmert also excised a reference from his prepared remarks about the dangers of choosing “appeasement” in the face of evil, thereby steering clear of the controversy sparked last month when Bush’s warning against appeasement in a speech to the Israeli Knesset earned a sharp rebuke from the Obama campaign.
Obama interpreted the remark as a dig at his stated willingness to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Several AIPAC activists and Jewish organizational officials said the tepid response to Olmert’s speech appeared to be as much about the prime minister himself as any of his particular policy statements. Nevertheless, some said they were impressed by Olmert’s ability to pull off a strong speech, given his political troubles.
In the past few days, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called for Olmert to step down, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned Olmert’s Kadima party to prepare for new primary elections and Israeli polls showed a majority of Israelis believe Olmert can no longer govern effectively.
The prime minister did not completely ignore these troubles in his AIPAC appearance.
“Given the recent political developments in Israel, of which I am sure you are all aware,” Olmert said with a smile as some members of the audience chuckled, “I hesitated as to whether it was the right time and the right thing to leave behind and meet with you today. I promise you, I didn’t hesitate for too long.”
As the mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, some Israelis mocked Olmert’s penchant for trips abroad. One Israeli periodical maintained a running tally of days he was absent from the city.
Last year, Olmert addressed the AIPAC policy confab via video conference.
Though he talked tough on Iran, Olmert also spoke on Tuesday evening of the importance of pursuing peace with Syria and the Palestinians.
“I know all too well the fears, suspicions and criticism which have always surrounded the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and I do not take them lightly,” he said. “I can only assure you that any future agreement, if and when it is reached, will be backed by all the necessary security guarantees, and that I will never compromise on anything which could undermine Israel’s security or vital interests.”
The statement drew a lukewarm response.
As for the Palestinians, Olmert offered strong support for the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, just two days after the P.A. leader slammed Israel’s newly announced plans to build 900 new homes in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods that Palestinians claim as their land.
“President Abbas and his government recognize Israel’s right to live in security and are as committed as we are to achieving peace, and have a genuine desire to see a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, in peace and security,” Olmert said.
That line, too, drew only scattered applause from the crowd.
Carol Neuman, who attended the conference from Cincinnati, characterized Olmert’s remarks as “very powerful,” but said the real question is whether his successor can follow through on his policy initiatives: negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace settlement, peace talks with Syria and neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat.
“I was impressed that he came, with all his problems,” Neuman said.
Some conference goers said they were more impressed by the speaker who preceded the prime minister.
Kibbutz Kfar Aza resident Chen Abrahams talked about the difficulties of living under constant rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip.
“She represented better than anyone can every one of the Israelis,” Olmert said of Abrahams.
After the speeches, Abrahams spoke up for the prime minister in his efforts to help the residents of Sderot, Kfar Aza and other Israeli towns subject to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
“I think Olmert has a lot on his mind and he’s trying to run the country as best he knows,” Abrahams told JTA. “It’s not easy.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago said it was “a little painful” to see the mixed reception Olmert received at AIPAC. Lopatin said audience members at his table did not stand and applaud when the prime minister spoke.
“It all felt a little peculiar,” Lopatin said. “We love Israel, so we support him. I stood up when he came in and I stood up when he left. But I would rather have had Peres speak.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres did not attend the conference, which featured few Israeli officials. Fewer than half a dozen members of Knesset were on hand, according to AIPAC’s roll call Tuesday night.
Stephen Rutenberg, a lawyer from New York, said all in all Olmert performed well.
“It’s kind of like when you go to a movie you think you’ll hate,” he said. “I had extremely low expectations, and he came off not so bad.”