AIPAC Unleashes Partisan Schism On Iran

Could Differences Between Netanyahu and Obama Shape Vote?

Split in November? Will the differences between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama over Iran play an outsized role in the November election? The partisan sparring at the AIPAC conference leads one to think so.
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Split in November? Will the differences between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama over Iran play an outsized role in the November election? The partisan sparring at the AIPAC conference leads one to think so.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 08, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
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The Democrats responded with a “watch guide” and an accompanying video to the delegates, juxtaposing Romney’s claims against Obama with the president’s statements in his March 4 AIPAC speech. And the administration’s position — presented not just by Obama, but also by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — succeeded in providing factual rebuttals to Republican claims. “I reserve all options, and my policy here is not going to be one of containment,” Obama said at the top of his White House meeting with Netanyahu.

But the current debate goes beyond facts; it centers on the perception that Obama and Netanyahu do not see eye to eye on whether military action against Iran is necessary in the short term.

Though there was nothing in the various pronouncements to suggest a stark difference of opinion, for those listening closely, it was possible to pick up a divergence on the issue of diplomacy’s usefulness. While Obama stressed the importance of taking advantage of a diplomatic window of opportunity generated by escalating sanctions against Iran, the Israeli leader would not commit to giving talks a chance. “We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu said in his address.

In private conversations with Obama and with secretaries Hillary Rodham Clinton and Panetta, Netanyahu, according to sources close to the prime minister, would not go beyond a general clarification that Israel has not yet made a decision as to whether to attack Iran. He did not provide any clear answer regarding the time that Israel is willing to give America to pursue a diplomatic solution. In public, Netanyahu focused on the dangers of inaction rather than responding to claims about the perils of taking action. Holding up a copy of a 1944 letter written by the World Jewish Congress to the administration, asking the United States to bomb Auschwitz — a request that was turned down — Netanyahu stated, “My friends, 2012 is not 1944.” He added: “Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again.”

For AIPAC, the politically charged parley posed a special challenge. The lobby entered its policy conference week with a concentrated drive to push forward congressional resolutions urging the president to change his Iran policy on a key point: from one committed to denying Iran nuclear weapons to a policy that pledges to deny Iran “nuclear capabilities.” This shift is a top priority of AIPAC, one its officials underlined in their briefs to thousands of grassroots delegates before they set off on their Capitol Hill lobbying day. The proposed resolution has the full backing of the Netanyahu government. The Obama administration, however, opposes changing the definition of America’s goals regarding Iran. Critics see it as lowering the threshold at which the United States would be committed to war.

The dispute is charged with partisan voltage. Still, the lobby tried its best to steer clear of entering the political dispute.

Banners that were spread throughout the Washington Convention Center hosting AIPAC’s conference carried the slogan “Shared Values, Shared Vision,” stressing the unity between Israel and the United States. But in his speech, AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, demonstrated that the organization strained this year to try and present this face of unity. Kohr praised Obama’s administration as doing “more than any other administration, more than any other country,” to counter Iran’s threats. At the same time, he made clear that it is up to Israel to decide if she chooses to “put her fate in the hands of anyone — even her closest ally, America, or if she must conduct a strike to postpone Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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