The Israeli newspapers are filled with stories about the ever-expanding corruption scandals embroiling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There are stories about the government’s plans to begin deporting about 38,000 African asylum-seekers after paying them each $3,500.
There are reports that 79 percent of the Jewish public oppose legislation demanded by charedi parties to reinstate blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students.
But you would never know any of that listening to the keynote speeches at this week’s AIPAC convention in Washington. And despite the scandals threatening to bring him down, Netanyahu never mentioned any of it — or even uttered the phrase two-state solution — in a half-hour address Tuesday to the 18,000 delegates in attendance. In fact, he appeared relaxed, confident — even buoyant.
“Netanyahu, Embroiled by Scandal at Home, Receives Hero’s Welcome at AIPAC,” trumpeted the headline of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“It was the elephant in the room,” said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, which advocates a negotiated two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I thought he [Netanyahu] might make a joking reference to it [the scandal], but he didn’t.”
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, the Conservative rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, said Netanyahu was “away from all the prosecutors and clearly enjoying himself. He is an effective communicator; he communicates with an audience like almost no one else in politics.”
Netanyahu devoted the beginning of his speech to touting Israel’s technological achievements and noting how they are being used to benefit people worldwide. He also decried the “radical tyranny of Iran.” He pointed out that Iran is seeking to build permanent bases in Syria “in addition to moving its army and navy to Syria to attack Israel [from a closer vantage point]. … I will not let that happen. Israel will not let that happen. We will stop Iran; We must stop Iran.”
He added that just as the Persians in the Book of Esther failed to destroy the Israelites, Iran “will fail now. We will never let Iran develop nuclear weapons. Not now, not next year — never.”
The prime minister spent little time speaking about the Palestinians. He did attack Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for paying terrorists who kill Israelis and Americans. He said those payments to Palestinian terrorists and their families total about $350 million a year, although Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Avi Dichter was quoted as saying Monday night that the figure was increased to $430 million with the adoption last Sunday of a new PA budget.
“I have a message for President Abbas: Stop paying terrorists,” Netanyahu said. “Because what message does this send to Palestinian children? It says, ‘Murder Jews and get rich.’ I believe President Abbas should find greater use of this money — to build roads, schools, hospitals, factories.”
He pointed out that one of the Palestinians convicted of killing members of the Fogel family will receive $2 million over his lifetime from the Palestinian Authority.
Koplow said the fact Netanyahu “didn’t mention anything about the peace process or the Trump [peace plan] initiative indicates it is clearly something he wants to avoid. He has been downplaying it this entire trip, probably because it doesn’t help him back home.”
The central committee of Netanyahu’s party, Likud, has passed a resolution calling on all Likud politicians to move ahead with plans to annex the West Bank, Koplow said, noting that Netanyahu was not present for the vote and in recent years has not repeated his call for a two-state solution.
“There is no question Netanyahu is backing away from two states,” he observed. “The Trump administration’s policy has been to create ambiguity about two states. The president has said he would support whatever the parties want. … The administration has been working on a peace plan for a while and the deadline for its release keeps getting pushed back. There has been no substantive engagement with the Palestinians for months, and if reports are correct that the president and prime minister didn’t even discuss the plan in their private meeting, it would suggest there isn’t anything there. If there was something that is going to be unveiled imminently, they would have discussed it.”
Rabbi Philip Scheim, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, pointed out that Netanyahu delivered the same speech — “he even used the same graphics” — to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations during their recent trip to Israel.
“It was a good speech,” he said. “The speech to us was a rehearsal. By next week, I could give it.”
Rabbi Scheim noted that some of the workshops he attended that were closed to the media did touch on some of the issues now dominating Israeli press coverage.
“At a workshop with journalists, some in the audience reflected those concerns but it certainly was not high on the agenda,” he said.
The convention’s clear favorite speaker was America’s United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley.
“She’s a rock star,” Rabbi Scheim said. “She received a 10-minute ovation before she said one word.”
Rabbi Skolnik agreed.
“She was incredibly appealing and her message about Israel was wonderfully refreshing,” he said. “The only thing was her reference to the fact she had been bullied as a child and that she will not tolerate bullying by anyone. I could not help but think her boss is the biggest bully of all with his comments about ‘crooked Hillary [Clinton]’ and ‘little Marco [Rubio].’ How could she possible say she hates bullies and yet work for him? But I like her and I think a lot of people in that room would definitely vote for her. She got more cheers than anyone — including [Vice President Mike] Pence.”
Although AIPAC supports a two-state solution, it was not mentioned by Netanyahu, Haley, Pence or David Friedman, America’s ambassador to Israel. It was mentioned by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), but barely: “Above all, we remain united in our support for a two-state solution with Israel’s capital in Jerusalem, which will ultimately be the best guarantor for a secure, peaceful and democratic Jewish state.”
Friedman, a frequent critic of the Palestinians, did not mention them in his remarks. Instead, he spoke of the Trump peace plan still being finalized and said media reports detailing purported aspects of the plan are “fake news.”
There was a notable difference between this year’s convention and the AIPAC convention held last year, just weeks after President Donald Trump was sworn in as president, according to Eliezer Buechler, 24, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University.
“Last year there was a lot more tension,” he said. “There was a lot more Obama versus Trump last year. This year, the convention focused more on the U.S.-Israel relationship itself.”
Trump did not attend this week’s convention.
Rabbi Todd Chizner, a Reform rabbi at Temple Judea of Manhasset, L.I., said this was his first convention and that he was struck by how “AIPAC went out of its way to welcome all groups that support Israel. Some were liberal, some were conservative, but everyone had a common love of Israel. It definitely felt it was balanced and represented the entire spectrum of how Jews view Israel. I came away feeling they really wanted to unify [everyone]. I almost believe AIPAC saw itself as repairers of the Jewish community. AIPAC had a lunch for perhaps 600 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and cantors. It is the most powerful voice for Israel in the U.S. and it sees itself as bridging the various views of support.”
Rabbi Skolnik said he too believes there was a “conscious effort [by AIPAC] to broaden its appeal to include the progressive community – in fact, it was mentioned in almost every sentence. And there were a lot of left-of-center speakers who were progressive in their social outlook and who were pro-Israel. The subtext is that there has been a lot of drift to the left in the Democratic Party and the progressive wing is becoming seriously more dominant. There are many folks who are concerned — including me — that we will not be able to vote for a Democrat who is not pro-Israel.”