WASHINGTON — Speaking to an estimated 18,000 pro-Israel activists on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised President Donald Trump for promising to counter threats to the Jewish state posed by Iran.
In Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and especially Syria, Iran is trying to build an empire that would threaten Israel's existence, Netanyahu told the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"In addition to moving its army, its air force, its navy to Syria to be able to attack Israel from closer at hand, it’s also seeking to develop, to build precision-guided missile factories in Syria and Lebanon against Israel," Netanyahu said. "I will not let that happen."
He said Trump "has made it clear that his administration will not accept Iran’s aggression in the region.
"That is the right policy. I salute President Trump on this," Netanyahu said.
But in a speech that preceded Netanyahu's, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, highlighted the same threats from Iran while mentioning another player that Netanyahu did not: Russia.
"We must stop wasting time testing Russia’s resolve on Iran," Menendez said. "Indeed, President Putin is happy to keep this administration wringing its hands while Iran moves in next door to Israel. My friends, this situation is untenable and absolutely unacceptable."
Menendez also urged Trump to maintain funding for global diplomacy and to use powers that the Senate approved in a 98-2 vote to sanction Iran for missile tests and other activities.
“If we want to hold Iran accountable each time it violates U.N. Security Resolutions by testing missiles, or delivering weapons to Hezbollah, we need a fully-funded, skilled, and experienced diplomatic corps to get the job done," Menendez said.
Natanyahu's visit comes as he is dealing with a political scandal in Israel that this week saw a confidant agree to be a state's witness. The investigation focuses on a lucrative regulation that benefited a telecommunications company.
Menendez's speech also marked his return as the Senate Democrats' point man on foreign affairs, a position he gave up in 2015 after he was indicted on corruption charges. The Justice Department decided to drop the remaining charges earlier this year following a trial that ended in a hung jury in November. After the trial, a judge acquitted him of the most serious allegations.
AIPAC officers, including the new president of the group, were among those who contributed to a Menendez legal defense fund that raised $5.1 million, and he opened his speech by thanking them.
"Sometimes God puts a Goliath in your path to find the David within you, and I found that David within me," Menendez said. "But we all know that even David had a slingshot. And many of you here today were part of my slingshot."
The conference comes as AIPAC, the nation's largest pro-Israel advocacy group, is trying to maintain its bipartisan tradition while support for Israel among Democrats, especially liberals, has been on the decline. Some longtime AIPAC supporters stayed away or staged protests when Trump was invited to speak in 2016, citing comments he made on the campaign trail they considered bigoted.
A January report by the Pew Research Center found that since 2001, Republicans sympathizing with Israel versus the Palestinians had increased from 50% to 79% while it declined among Democrats 38% to 27%.
In his speech, Menendez said the polls did not ask a direct question about support for the Israeli state. He argued that Israel continued to have strong support in both parties, pointing to the vote on sanctions against Iran, opposition to efforts to press companies to boycott Israel, and funding for Israeli defense systems.