May 21, 1998
Power, Politics & People
By J.J. Goldberg
Watching Binyamin Netanya-hu work the Jewishcommunity in New York and Washington last week, it was hard not tothink of Itzhak Perlman on the violin or Eric Clapton on the guitar.Like them, he displayed the virtuosity of an artist who knows justhow to craft the sounds and evoke the emotions he's lookingfor.
Netanyahu came to America an embattled primeminister on May 13. He left four days later a conquering hero, buoyedby a reception in the Jewish community that aides said exceeded theirwildest expectations. Whether addressing the crowds at New York'sannual Salute to Israel parade or rallying the troops at theWashington policy conference of the American Israel Public AffairsCommittee, Netanyahu played his listeners' emotions masterfully, toever-growing applause.
"It's unbelievable," said Bobby Brown, the primeminister's adviser on Diaspora affairs. "The response of the Jewishcommunity this week reminds me of nothing so much as June '67. Theactivist spirit of American Jewry is returning."
For Netanyahu, the comeback was long overdue. Aone-time "Nightline" star, catapulted to leadership partly because ofhis vaunted American media savvy, he's suffered two years of steadilydeclining ratings in the U.S. market since taking office. Just lastNovember, he endured a frosty reception at a major Jewish leadershipassembly in Indianapolis and an open snub from President Clinton inLos Angeles. In January, he hit back crudely by flirting with JerryFalwell during an official visit. That enraged both theadministration and the Jews.
This time, though, Netanyahu had near-perfectpitch, bringing audiences to just the right fever of indignationwithout quite insulting the country hosting him. "We have apartnership with the United States that is enduring and solid," hetold 2,000 cheering, hooting guests at a Sunday breakfast thrown byNew York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But he added to approving roars:"Who should determine Israel's security needs? Israel!"
The changed atmosphere was visible everywhereNetanyahu went: in the relaxed atmosphere of a celebrity-studdeddinner at New York's prestigious Jewish Museum; in the respectfulhearing he got at the national convention of the liberal-leaningAmerican Jewish Committee; in the approving cheers from onlookers atthe New York parade; and in the repeated applause at the AIPACconference.
He even braved a Conservative synagogue,fulfilling a promise made a year ago. His aides were expecting asmall, surly audience at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue. Instead,they found an enthusiastic, overflow crowd.
"There's been a big sea change," says LosAngeles-based entertainer Ed Ames, an AIPAC volunteer who was one ofthose cheering Netanyahu in Washington last week. "It's reflected inthe polls. You can see it on people's faces. Whether it's MadeleineAlbright and her ultimatum or Hillary Rodham Clinton and herdeclaration of a Palestinian state, this administration has beensending out trial balloons to see what the Jewish public will put upwith. Finally, it struck home and kind of woke Jews up. Bibi had theguts to stand up, and Americans appreciate that."
To a degree, the shift is more apparent than real.Two of the prime minister's most enthusiastic crowds -- at the paradeand the mayoral breakfast beforehand -- were made up overwhelminglyof Orthodox Jews, who constitute barely 15 percent of New York Jewrybut form the core of Netanyahu's support here. Others, it seems,stayed away. The support is dramatic, but shallow.
The parade was smaller than it looked, too.Netanyahu's aides gushed about the sea of humanity visible from thereviewing stand. Just four blocks north, though, the crowds thinneddramatically. Organizers claimed a turnout of a quarter-million, butthe real count was probably less than 50,000, disappointing onIsrael's 50th anniversary.
Indeed, except for the American Jewish Committeeand Park Avenue Synagogue, all the prime minister's audiences seemedto consist mainly of his base constituencies: Orthodox Jews andhard-core Israel loyalists.
"There's something going on out there in thefield," says a respected Washington political consultant. "Jewsaren't moved by Israel anymore, for a whole lot of reasons. The AIPACcrowd is producing maybe one-third the campaign contributions theyused to produce. What motivates Jews these days is human rights, theenvironment and lowering the capital-gains tax. Israel is way downaround No. 6 on the list."
Says a Jewish member of Congress who met withNetanyahu in Washington last week: "There's no question that theJewish community is not as united as we were a year ago. Look atthose dueling letters in Congress a few weeks ago, or the debateswithin the Presidents Conference. It's true we rallied at the lastminute, but that was only after the rumors and threats of anadministration ultimatum became an actual ultimatum. That unifiedus."
From the standpoint of politics and diplomacy,that public closing of ranks is what counts. Back in Jerusalem,Netanyahu's American show of strength will bolster his hand when andif he tries to sell new concessions to his divided Cabinet. InWashington, it appears to have led administration officials to lookfor ways of trimming their demands in deference to Netanyahu'sstrength in their own back yard. The result was a dramatic flurry ofnew diplomacy in the final hours of the prime minister's U.S.visit.
Not all of this is Netanyahu's doing, of course."Most of all, it was Hillary," says Rabbi Leonard Guttman, an aide toNew York's Giuliani and longtime Likud supporter. "Hillary Clintondid what no one in the Jewish community could do: create unity in thecommunity."
Still, the credit is Netanyahu's because thecomeback is his. Indeed, Itzhak Perlman and Eric Clapton are probablythe wrong comparisons for his performance. The right one is the lateFrancis Albert Sinatra. America's hottest teen idol in the 1940s,Sinatra suddenly lost his voice and career in 1949. When he bouncedback in 1953, he had a richer, more nuanced voice and an uncannyrapport with audiences. And a barely controlled rage.
AIPAC activist Ed Ames, who admires both men,agrees. "It's closer to Sinatra," says Ames, who had his own stringof hits as one of the four Ames Brothers in the 1950s and joinedAIPAC in 1991. "Remember that Americans loved Bibi. Here's thisgood-looking guy who speaks English like an American, articulate,bright as hell. Then he had to make some hard decisions as primeminister. Things were tough for a while. And now there's this hugechange. People are behind him." Except the ones that stay home.
J.J. Goldberg is the author of "Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment." He writes from regularlyfor The Jewish Journal.