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Gantz to deliver keynote speech at AIPAC ahead of Israel election

Benny Gantz, former Israeli military chief of staff, and presidential candidate, speaks during an electoral campaign gathering on 19 February 2019, in Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]
Benny Gantz, former Israeli military chief of staff, and presidential candidate, speaks during an electoral campaign gathering on 19 February 2019, in Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

Head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance Benny Gantz is to deliver the keynote speech at the upcoming American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, side-lining Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz’s aides confirmed yesterday that the ex-Chief of Staff will address the conference – which will take place on 25 March in Washington DC – as its keynote speaker, a day before Netanyahu is expected to address the same conference.

The Blue and White alliance said in a statement yesterday that “Gantz will use his speech to emphasize that, after the election [on 9 April], he will work to rebuild the relationship with American Jewry and ensure that Israel will once again enjoy the support of its friends across the spectrum in the United States”.

The statement continued: “As prime minister, Gantz will strengthen and deepen the strategic relationship with the United States in both foreign and defense policy with a focus on counter-terrorism. The US-Israel relationship is based on shared values and mutual interest.”

Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party which, together with Gantz’s Israel Resilience (Hosen L’Yisrael) party, makes up the Blue and White alliance, will not address the AIPAC conference, the Times of Israel explained.

READ: Gantz seeks ‘Jewish and Zionist’ allies, ruling out coalition with Israel-Arab parties

That Gantz and not Netanyahu will deliver the keynote speech will be seen as a victory for the prime ministerial hopeful given the conference’s proximity to the upcoming general election. The conference will, in many ways, act as a litmus test for Gantz’s popularity with the US’ Israel lobby and could provide an important platform in the latter stages of his campaign.

Though other party heads are also slated to address the conference – including the Israeli Labor party’s Avi Gabbay and the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash)’s Naftali Bennett – none are in a position to challenge Netanyahu’s grip on the Knesset and contest the premiership.

Gantz’s promise to “rebuild [Israel’s] relationship with American Jewry” will also be seen as a thinly-veiled criticism of Netanyahu, under whose leadership US-Israel relations have become strained. A poll conducted earlier this month showed that the American public’s support for Israel was at its lowest level in a decade, with only 59 per cent taking Israel’s side in the Israel-Palestine conflict, compared to 64 per cent in 2018.

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Jewish-American youth have also become increasingly critical of Israel under Netanyahu, as indicated by the rise in walkouts from Birthright trips late last year. In December, Haaretz revealed that there had been an “unprecedented” decline in Jewish-Americans participating in the trip, which sends Jewish youth to Israel for free. The Israeli daily noted that “recent studies have shown that Jewish millennials, who are largely progressive, feel less connected to Israel than their parents and grandparents because they perceive the country’s policies as antithetical to their values”.

READ: US senator vows to push US to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights

This crack in US-Israel relations has deepened this month in light of the ongoing row sparked by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. In February, Omar responded to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald, in which the latter said: “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation [Israel], even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.” Omar tweeted in response: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”

Her comments – which were understood to refer to AIPAC and other lobby groups which donate vast sums of money to Israel – sparked a fierce backlash and accusations of anti-Semitism. US President Donald Trump even called on Omar to resign over the scandal.

Jewish-Americans, however, have come out in support of Omar, signing an open letter to express their backing of the besieged congresswoman. The letter said that Omar has been “falsely accused of antisemitism” and that “the pro-Israel lobby has played an outsized role in producing nearly unanimous congressional support for Israel”. The letter concluded: “As Jews with a long tradition of social justice and anti-racism, AIPAC does not represent us.”

Commentators have pointed out that Netanyahu has done little to alleviate the crisis, claiming he is too preoccupied by the upcoming Israeli election and fighting the corruption charges levied against him. Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev has claimed that, in fact, Netanyahu has actively allowed the controversy to fester due to the fact that it fits his own narrative of a “united anti-Israel left”.

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