Washington — As delegates headed home from the annual conference of Washington’s major pro-Israel lobby, a perceived gap between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama on how to handle Iran looked set to become a partisan chasm between Republicans and Democrats.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s gathering, which took place in early March, featured Republican presidential candidates avidly attacking Obama for being out of sync with the Israeli leader. The candidates used the opportunity to distinguish their foreign policy approach from the president’s, but also as a bid for support from the powerful pro-Israel community. And this promised to make Netanyahu, for all his protestations, a central player in this year’s presidential election.
Aides to the Israeli prime minister told the Forward that Netanyahu himself had no intention of turning Iran into an internal political issue in the United States. They pointed to his repeated praise of Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from becoming nuclear. Netanyahu also made sure not to meet with Republican presidential candidates while in Washington.
Nevertheless, the question of whether diplomacy is still possible to confront Iran’s drive to develop its nuclear program divides Obama and Netanyahu. And Republicans see a potential wedge issue in the Israeli prime minister’s lack of response to the president’s insistence on more time.
The Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, demanded a “no gap” policy between Israel and the United States in their approach toward Iran, which Western countries charge is seeking to use its program to obtain nuclear weapons. (Iran denies the charge.) Democrats rejected the notion that anything divides the two leaders. “I don’t see any gap,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said. “The president and the prime minister are closer on Iran than they’ve ever been.”
Any attempt to exclude Iran from election-year politicking at the AIPAC conference was doomed to fail, as tough rhetoric and threats of military action won applause from many in the 13,000-delegate crowd. Meanwhile, calls for restraint met a polite response at best.
“We do a disservice to the security of our nation and Israel if we succumb to those who would use Israel to divide us for partisan gain,” said Democrat Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services committee, in his March 6 address to the conference. But the audience had only a few minutes to dwell on Levin’s warning before presidential candidate Rick Santorum took to the stage with a scathing attack on Obama’s policy toward Israel and Iran. “Listening to the prime minister’s speech last night and then listening to the president’s, there is a clear and unfortunate tragic disconnect between how the leaders of the country of Israel and the country of the United States view the exigency of this situation,” Santorum said. Fellow candidates Romney and Newt Gingrich followed a similar line of attack.