Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference was another rhetorical tour-de-force by this most silvered-tongued of Israeli leaders.
There were applause lines for almost everyone. Once again, Netanyahu promised to defend Israel against an Iranian nuclear threat and to be beholden to no other nation in his zeal to protect his people.
He attacked the boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions movement in withering terms. He extolled Israeli medical advances and water conservation achievements, highlighted Israel’s role in treating victims of the Syrian civil war and envisaged Israeli strategic and economic cooperation with Arab Gulf States.
Once again, Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state but also spoke in soaring terms about the benefits of peace and a two-state solution. In many ways, the speech was yet another virtuoso performance.
Netanyahu has always been a wonderful speaker. For many reporters, myself among them, our first contact with him came during the 1980s when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and delivered many stirring speeches in defense of his country.
Later, he was spokesman for the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Few who saw them will forget his frequent TV interviews during the U.S. war against Iraq that same year, with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, when he again expertly explained Israel’s position and perspectives.
In short, Netanyahu has always been a great spokesman.
Netanyahu is comfortable with words. He trusts words, maybe even a bit too much. Perhaps that is why he places such an emphasis on wringing out of the Palestinians an acknowledgment that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Such a statement will have great symbolic significance no doubt, but words alone do not necessarily create new realities. Words remain words.
In Israel’s political history, the ability to deliver a great speech has not always equated with great political leadership. Menachem Begin was an electrifying speaker — and he rallied the nation in favor of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, which entailed evacuating Israeli settlements in Sinai. But he later misled the Israeli people about the aims of his 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which turned into a bloody quagmire for Israeli forces and a tragic strategic disaster for the country.
By contrast, Yitzhak Rabin was a relatively poor orator. His delivery was wooden and monotonous and he searched, often in vain, for the memorable phrase. But he spoke with such conviction and such moral authority that people believed him, despite — or perhaps because of — his lack of fluency.
In the Book of Exodus, when God summons Moses at the burning bush to lead his people, Moses at first demurs, saying, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent … but I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” God responds that Aaron can act as spokesman but that only Moses has the unique qualities to lead.
You can always hire a spokesman, but leadership carries different requirements, among them courage, conviction, vision and decisiveness.
This is the challenge that now confronts Netanyahu. We know he can speak — but can he lead? Fine words finely spoken are important and have their place — but the time is coming for Netanyahu to take action and to finally decide whether to accept the peace framework being put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry.
In a sense, almost everything Netanyahu says between now and taking that decision is beside the point. Only the decision itself counts and only the decision will be remembered. If he decides to move forward, and if President Abbas does the same, we will have a chance of ending this conflict. If he decides against it, Netanyahu will have to face the unpleasant consequences. Israel will become increasingly diplomatically isolated and the BDS movement will gather steam. No amount of words, however eloquent, will disguise those facts.
Netanyahu’s eloquence is a huge asset, which will come into play again once he commits to peace. He will need to use that ability to mobilize Israelis behind him and to counter the inevitable attacks against him that will come from the settler movement and those opposed to a two-state solution.
But those memorable speeches lie ahead. Right now, what counts are not words, but deeds. Netanyahu must search his soul and make a decision. He must lead Israel toward peace. That will be his legacy and secure his place in Israel’s history. Otherwise, he will be remembered as a great purveyor of hot air.
(Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.)