Sen. Robert Menendez hands down got the most enthusiastic reception of any speaker so far at AIPAC’s annual conference.
I’d say you could barely hear the New Jersey Democrat on Monday night but for the whoops and shouts, except that Menendez has a preacher’s style and his rich tenor and rolling cadences rode the cheering like a rodeo cowboy. He was in control, and everything he said was crystal clear.
When it came to standing ovations, he definitely bested Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who was no slouch when it came to earning cheers.
So what happened?
Well, for one thing Menendez is the Democrat who puts the “bi” back in partisanship, a one-man bulwark against the notion that hewing to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Iran-skeptic precepts makes you a Republican.
His tough talk was just the tonic for a lobby battled by perceptions that it is increasingly identified with the GOP.
“The fact is — the U.S.-Israel relationship and security of the Israeli people is much more important than any one person or any speech to Congress,” he said. “It is sacrosanct, untouchable. It transcends faith, party affiliation or political philosophy.”
Menendez has his name on both pieces of legislation AIPAC activists are taking to Congress on Tuesday: one that would add sanctions should Iran walk away from a nuclear deal and one that would subject any deal to congressional review.
“I can tell you one thing,” he said. “As long as I have an ounce of fight left in me, as long as I have a vote and a say and a chance to protect the interest of Israel, the region and the national security interests of the United States — Iran will never have a pathway to a weapon. It will never threaten Israel or its neighbors, and it will never be in a position to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Not on my watch!”
The most pointed reason for the joyous reception Menendez got, though, was the release he offered AIPAC activists after two days of making nice about the tensions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over “Speechgate.”
Netanyahu spent Monday morning insisting that tensions over the speech he arranged in secret with congressional Republicans, and the pushback from congressional Democrats and the White House just didn’t matter. What mattered, the prime minister said, was the U.S.-Israel relationship, which was solid, and Iran, which was dangerous.
That evening, just before Menendez strode out, the crowd was polite for Susan Rice, the national security adviser who last week said that Netanyahu’s speech was “destructive” of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Then Menendez came, and polite was so last half hour.
First he took on his own party.
“And, when it comes to defending the U.S.-Israel relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone — not Israel’s political enemies, and not by my political friends when I believe they’re wrong,” he said.
Then he took on Rice.
“I may agree with some Democrats that the political timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation to speak to Congress tomorrow may have been unfortunate, and that we must work fervently to keep the US-Israel relationship a strong bipartisan endeavor,” he said. “But I take issue with those who say the prime minister’s visit to the United States is ‘destructive to U.S.-Israel relations.’
“And tomorrow I will be proud when I escort Prime Minister Netanyahu to the House chamber to give his speech! To show him the respect he deserves from every American who cares about our relationship with the only true democracy in the Middle East.”
The crowd went wild.