With talk of a widening rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, area delegates to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2011 Policy Conference listened closely as both men addressed the convention.
“It is very hard to tell what the relationship is between the president and the prime minister,” said Steve Klinghoffer, a Short Hills resident and past president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
“The president was politely received, but I thought that it was tepid, compared to what one might expect a president of the United States to receive,” Klinghoffer, a Republican, told NJ Jewish News in a May 24 telephone interview.
In contrast, he found Netanyahu’s presentation to be “very effective and rousing. He got people off their feet on a regular basis. He is a great speaker.”
A record number attended the conference held May 22-24 in Washington, DC.
Although he did not attend the AIPAC conference, Larry Lerner of Warren heard Netanyahu’s speech to Congress seated in the House’s public gallery. Lerner is past president of Meretz USA, a left-of-center peace group. He attended as a guest of Rep. Donald Payne (D-Dist. 10).
“Netanyahu was very self-confident and he received an extremely warm reception,” Lerner told NJJN. “He was very supportive and solicitous of President Obama, as if to counteract his criticism of the American leader last week, and made a point of praising him with regard to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.”
According to Lerner, the Israeli prime minister “wanted to appear very willing to negotiate, but he didn’t mention any new concessions.”
Barry Schindler, a Mountain Lakes attorney and a Democrat, said he was pleased that “Obama said the bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable.”
Schindler spoke with NJJN on a cell phone from the Washington, DC, Convention Center.
“When Obama spoke, he said all the things AIPAC wanted him to say,” said Schindler. “Then right at the end, he said, ‘OK, let’s address what I said about the 1967 borders. The ’67 borders must be sensible and adapted to what are defensible borders.’ And he went one step further. It was an important clarification. He said, ‘We must consider what has happened with the demographics in the years since the ’67 borders.’
“The way Netanyahu responded indicated that he and Obama are now in the same place,” said Schindler.
Melanie Roth Gorelick, associate director of the Community Relations Committee of UJC MetroWest, emphasized the attitudes that united the delegates.
“There was a very supportive atmosphere here,” she said. “We are concerned about the delegitimization of Israel and the declaration of a Palestinian state by the United Nations, and people here are very mistrustful about what is going to happen in the future.”
Despite “mixed reviews” of President Obama’s speech, “for most people his explanation was reassuring,” said Gorelick. “He reaffirmed all the close ties of the U.S.-Israel relationship and all the achievements that have been made for peace during his presidency.”
The president, said Gorelick, “gave very strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself. Everyone wants Israel and the Palestinians to go the negotiating table, not to the UN. And everyone is concerned about the Fatah-Hamas pact and what that will mean for aid to the Palestinians.”
Democrat Sarit Catz of Short Hills said she was “disappointed with some of Obama’s positions. He said some things that were excellent and some things that were troubling.”
Catz, a comedy writer by profession and cochair of AIPAC’s MetroWest and Central New Jersey Council, spoke with NJJN by phone from the conference.
“My main concern with the president’s original speech was not the headline-grabbing 1967 borders” section, she said. “He took this phenomenon that had nothing to do with Israel — the Arab Spring — and that people in the Arab world had awakened to the fact that their misery is caused by their own regimes. They are calling for the very things that the citizens of the United States and Israel enjoy. He linked it with the Arab-Israeli peace process, and that to me was the most damaging thing in his speech.”
But, Catz said, she was pleased that Obama “did say Israel was a Jewish state, and that is important. He did say, ‘Hamas is a terrorist organization,’ which it is, and he said that Israel is not expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization. He said the United States will not support any UN motion to declare unilaterally a Palestinian state and that all peace has to be negotiated and not imposed by international bodies. Those are important things and we need to give him credit for those things.”
Elaine Durbach contributed to this story.