The theme at this year's J Street conference was "Making History," and that's exactly what happened on Monday evening when Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel's Washington embassy, became "the first Israeli diplomat to attend a conference of the liberal pro-Israel group since its establishment in 2008."
Binah, who confessed in the beginning of his address that he has only held this post for two months, also revealed that it was his his first public appearance in the United States. Perhaps it was his condescending tone, or maybe it was just the fact that he spoke on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is wildly unpopular among J Street's constituency, but the Washington newcomer's speech was less than well-received. He began with a very Netanyahu-esque reminder that the past (read: the Holocaust) is "alive and scorching."
The unpopular message continued as Binah accused the audience of not standing with the Israelis:
"We share your democratic values, but...our borders are curved and dusty and made of missiles and mayhem, and as we continue to face incurable threats we have to make decisions of life and death...At the end of the day it is we the Israelis who must bear the ultimate burden and may have to pay the ultimate price...We need you to stand with us. It is as simple as that and someone ought to say it. Internal activism is a central part of democratic society, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can present us with a problem, davka when we need you the most."
Davka is a notoriously untranslatable Hebrew word that in this sense means "especially."
He also applauded J Street for its "repudiation" of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS), noting that "our shared view in that respect is that BDS is not a form of criticism, but a blatant...attack."
No Israeli diplomatic presence would be complete without a reference to Iran, and Binah repeated the popular line that "while we seek and support peace, the ayatollah's of Iran call for our annihilation." Convincing a room full of peaceniks that the Palestinians should be blamed for thwarting negotiations was also a tough sell:
"We're willing to put contentious issues on the table, but we find that the metaphorical table was...blown up."
His talk exploding tables and rabid Ayatollahs was somewhat grim, but at least he threw in a Harry Potter reference, saying "This is not a game of political quidditch."
Despite the audible booing and hissing throughout, Binah told me after he spoke that he thought the speech was well-received, and that the embassy sent him there because of the "ripeness of time."
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (fending off corruption charges back home) had a message more the crowd's liking, discussing the peace plan he presented to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas:
"I thought then and I think now that there is no alternative to what I proposed and one day...when we celebrate peace with the Palestinians, this peace will be identical to what I proposed to Abu Mazen finally and formally and officially on September 16, 2008."
The Olmert peace plan, to which Abbas did not respond, called for a two-state solution whose borders are based on the 1967 pre-Six Day War lines.
Olmert ended his keynote speech with the adamant affirmation that Kadima, the centrist Israeli political party he helped create in 2005, is the best alternative to Israel's political status quo. Unfortunately for Olmert, the heated race for the Kadima premiership between current chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Member of Knesset Shaul Mofaz has become just as divisive as the America's Republican candidate tug-of-war.
Between a Netanyahu talking head and an embattled politician who continues to advocate for a peace plan past its prime, the evening was a bizarre and disconnected affair that seemed to reinforce the frustrated and pessimistic mood at this year's conference.
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