Elephant in the Room

Downplaying charges of partisanship, Jerusalem and Washington play nice at massive AIPAC confab.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference inb Washington, DC, on March 2, 2015..   AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference inb Washington, DC, on March 2, 2015.. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In a slickly orchestrated lobbying event in Washington, Israeli and American leaders used speeches to a massive audience of pro-Israel activists to paper over the simmering tension between their respective governments and emphasize the “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

“This partnership should never be politicized and it can not and will not be tarnished or broken,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said in her remarks to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which drew 16,000 pro-Israel activists to Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “regret” that his upcoming address to Congress was “misperceived” as a partisan slight to the White House, and thanked the Obama administration for its military, intelligence, and economic aid to Israel over the last six years. “I am deeply grateful for this support and so should you be,” he said.

Gone were the public barbs that have come to define the relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government over their disagreements about the trajectory of negotiations to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Speculation that Power’s speech would elicit murmurs, or even boos, did not pan out — pleasing AIPAC organizers, who had feared just such a response from the crowd of right-leaning activists.

Prior to Power’s speech, a pre-recorded video clip implored AIPAC attendees to treat speakers as “guests in our home,” a request the crowd adhered to even as Power defended the administration’s nuclear negotiations and criticized the Netanyahu government’s controversial settlement policies.

“Talks, no talks, agreement, no agreement, the United States will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our national security and that of our closest allies,” said Power, during a 30-minute address that also deplored the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and recalled the “evils of the Holocaust.”

She added that “Israeli settlement activity damages the prospects for peace” — a reference to the expansion of West Bank settlement activity under Netanyahu that the U.S. believes is “illegitimate.”

Power received two standing ovations during the speech and raucous applause as she promised that the U.S. “will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Period.”

But the loudest applause was reserved for Netanyahu, viewed in this crowd as the victimized leader of a nation in peril.

“Reports of the demise of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not only premature, they’re just wrong,” he said. “Our alliance is stronger than ever.”

Netanyahu sought to depict the recent flare up of tensions as a small speed bump in a U.S.-Israel relationship that has weathered disagreements since the country’s founding. “Disagreements among allies are only natural from time to time,” he said. “Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons. But we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing those weapons.”

Netanyahu said he would not preview the contents of his address to Congress tomorrow, but said Israel’s security would be at the forefront of his mind.

One AIPAC attendee, a business consultant from Philadelphia, applauded both speakers, but acknowledged the simmering tensions between the two governments. “Unfortunately, you can’t keep politics out of it. It’s like saying there’s no elephant in the room, but there is,” said Robert Marmon.

“I didn’t agree with everything [Power] said, but she did her job,” he added.

Another attendee, an attorney from Nashville, said Power won respect from the audience for her support of Israel at the United Nations — “a very difficult body she works within” — but also defended Netanyahu’s lobbying efforts on the Hill to oppose the administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran, dealings the administration says are the only way to avoid a military confrontation with Tehran.

“Congress appreciates him coming and they need the briefing from him,” said Rhonda Small.

“We do need to have that voice.… We have to speak about the issues,” she added.

At least 53 Democrats in Congress plan to skip Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday and no senior U.S. officials will meet with the prime minister during his visit in Washington. Democratic refuseniks include Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Al Franken (Minn.), and a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Elijah Cummings (Md.), who viewed Jerusalem’s failure to notify the White House in advance of the speech — a breach of diplomatic protocol — as a sign of profound “disrespect” to the president.

Netanyahu tried to combat those criticisms directly. “My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” Netanyahu said. “I have great respect for both.”

It’s unclear if Netanyahu will strike a harsher tone in Congress tomorrow as he’s flanked by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch, but he’s expected to voice support for new legislation to impose sanctions on Iran if a deal doesn’t materialize — a bill the White House says will blow up the nuclear talks and has promised to veto.

Either way, all eyes will be on the body movements of the many congressional Democrats who reluctantly agreed to attend the event, such as Rep. Adam Schiff, the most senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “I plan on attending the speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu, but not without serious reservations,” Schiff said in a statement Monday. He added that he doesn’t “believe that the House floor should be used as a platform for a foreign head of state to lobby Congress on a bill opposed by the President.”

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