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Netanyahu addresses AIPAC from Israel after returning to discuss Gaza bombing

Israel's Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the launch of the Likud party election campaign on 4 March 2019 [Amir Levy/Getty Images]
Israel's Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the launch of the Likud party election campaign on 4 March 2019 [Amir Levy/Getty Images]

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has today addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington DC via satellite link from a military base in Israel.

Netanyahu was due to address the conference on the second day of his US tour, which he cut short yesterday to return to Israel to deal with the ongoing situation in Gaza. Reports emerged earlier today that he had landed back in Israel and had gone straight to a meeting with high-level defence officials at the Kirya military base in central Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu sitting on Gaza – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Netanyahu, however, seems to have found time in his schedule to address the AIPAC conference from afar. Speaking about Israel’s overnight bombardment of the already-besieged Gaza Strip, Netanyahu said: “I can tell you we are prepared to do a lot more. We will do what is necessary to defend our people and to defend our state.”

He continued: “We responded with great force. In the last 24 hours, the [Israeli army] destroyed major Hamas terrorist installations on a scale not seen since the end of the military operation in Gaza four years ago,” referring to Israel’s 2014 war on the Strip which left over 2,000 Palestinians dead.

The Times of Israel reported that, immediately after addressing the conference, Netanyahu returned to discussions with the Israeli army’s Chief of Staff, Aviv Kohavi, and other top defence officials about Israel’s next steps. Despite reports last night that an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire had been reached between Israel and Hamas, Israeli officials have today denied this claim and vowed to continue their military assault on the Strip.

A number of high profile figures have called for Israel to intensify its attack. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – who co-lead the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party after breaking away from the Jewish Home party in December – have today slammed Netanyahu’s response as weak, saying talk of a ceasefire is “embarrassing” and steps should be taken to make Hamas “afraid” of Israel.

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Netanyahu also used his AIPAC speech to discuss the relationship between the US and Israel which, despite strong ties between the Trump administration and the Israeli prime minister, has been strained in recent months by criticism from Jewish-Americans and Democrats alike. Netanyahu said today: “Take it from this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins,” referring to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s tweets in which she criticised groups like AIPAC for donating huge sums of money to Israel.

Netanyahu instead claimed that US support for Israel stems from shared interests and values, saying “they don’t want our money, they share our values”. He added: “Those who seek to undermine American support for Israel should be confronted. To all the anti-Semites out there – we stand up, we fight and we win.”

The prime minister also addressed other political developments, including US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. During Netanyahu’s brief stay in the US, President Trump signed a presidential decree to bring the change – which represents a departure from decades of US foreign policy – into effect. Addressing the AIPAC conference, Netanyahu thanked Trump for the move “on behalf of all the people of Israel,” saying: “The Golan Heights is indispensable for our defence […] and for our history. We shall never give it up, its part of Israel.”

Netanyahu also took the chance to address domestic Israeli issues, saying Israel “is a home for all Jews” and all Israelis are “first-class citizens; all citizens have exactly the same individual rights”. His comments will raise eyebrows after he earlier this month said Israel is not a “state of all its citizens”, adding that “the Arab citizens [in Israel] have 22 nation states around them and they do not need another”. His comments sparked anger among the international community and Israel’s some 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, who have been fighting against the Nation-State Law since it effectively rendered them second-class citizens back in July.

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With exactly two weeks until the upcoming general election in Israel, the AIPAC conference and indeed Netanyahu’s US tour was supposed to act as a PR exercise to boost his struggling performance in the polls. Netanyahu has been keen to stress his relationship with President Trump throughout his re-election campaign, using billboards of the pair shaking hands and pointing to Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in May as evidence that he has “got things done” during his latest term.

That Netanyahu was able to address the AIPAC conference at all will be seen as a small victory for the incumbent prime minister, but the ad-hoc nature of the speech and the reportedly shaky satellite connection will have added to the somewhat frenzied appearance that commentators have observed in the prime minister in recent days.

These observations have been further buoyed by the cool-as-a-cucumber image that Netanyahu’s biggest electoral rival, Benny Gantz, has maintained. Since launching his campaign in December, Gantz has emphasised his previous role as the army’s chief of staff to portray himself as a “safe pair of hands” who puts Israel’s security “before everything”. Despite a stumble in the wake of the Iran phone hacking scandal – which Gantz initially denied before having to admit that he had knowledge of the affair – he has largely sustained this unflappable image.

Gantz himself addressed AIPAC yesterday after it was revealed earlier this month that he would give the keynote speech. Commentators seem to have responded well to Gantz’s address, noting that, though he at first appeared hesitant compared to Netanyahu’s over-confident style and heavy US accent, he has “passed the AIPAC test”. Gantz played to his strengths during the speech, discussing his military credentials in a bid to tackle Netanyahu’s criticisms of him as a “leftist”. He also, however, appeared keen to strike a balance, painting himself as a man open to diplomatic overtures by saying: “To those that would like to turn a new page: We will extend our hand in peace and we will strive for peace with any honest and willing Arab leader.”

READ: Netanyahu’s main election rival sidesteps Palestinian statehood

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