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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.