Washington - The Bush administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are pressing the Jewish community to support the war in Iraq, arguing that American failure there would hurt Israel’s security and America’s efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
Vice President Dick Cheney made the argument during a speech Monday to an estimated 6,000 activists who were in Washington for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“It is simply not consistent,” Cheney said in his Monday speech, “for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace that is posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened.”
Olmert echoed the point in a speech via satellite, warning that premature withdrawal from Iraq would put Israel’s security at risk.
Cheney’s call on pro-Israel activists to oppose withdrawal from Iraq overshadowed the annual Aipac gathering. Organizers had hoped the plenum would focus on the need for tough economic measures against Iran, without having the effort portrayed publicly as advocating military action against the regime in Tehran.
But the attempts to avoid such a portrayal suffered a blow Monday, when Congressional Quarterly reported on Aipac’s role in blocking a House proposal that would require the Bush administration to get congressional approval before taking military action against Iran.
The administration’s case for tying Iraq to the Iranian issue received support from senior Israeli officials speaking to the delegates. Olmert, who woke up at 4 a.m. to speak via satellite from his home in Jerusalem, did not mince words when expressing his support of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.
“Those who are concerned for Israel’s security,” Olmert said, “for the security of the Gulf states and for the stability of the entire Middle East should recognize the need for American success in Iraq, and for a responsible exit.”
The Israeli prime minister came out against “premature” withdrawal from Iraq and said that, while he does not want to meddle in American politics — “I have enough politics at home” — he believes that “when America is stronger in Iraq, Israel is stronger in Israel.”
Similar views were expressed by Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni, who said earlier Monday that “if we appease the extremists — if they feel that we are backing down — they will sense victory and become more dangerous not only to the region but to the world. This applies to the decisions made on Iran; it is true for Iraq.”
The vice president’s speech, which focused on the war in Iraq, received a lukewarm welcome from the Aipac delegates. The crowd gave Cheney only one standing ovation and only partial applause when he made the connection between the need to stay in Iraq and the ability of the United States to deal effectively with Iran’s nuclear threat. In sharp contrast, when Cheney dedicated his speech last year to the dangers posed by Iran and Palestinian terrorism, he drew 48 rounds of applause, including eight standing ovations.
Sources at Aipac expressed surprise over Cheney’s decision to focus his speech on Iraq and not on the Iranian issue. According to the sources, the office of the vice president did not discuss the content of his speech with the group before it was delivered.
The speech drew criticism from some corners.
“What he offered was nothing less than a quid pro quo,” said a Democratic activist after listening to the speech. “He is in fact saying to the community, ‘If you want us on Iran, support us on Iraq.’”
Other delegates, while steering clear of the political implications of Cheney’s call, did not dismiss a possible linkage between supporting the war in Iraq and taking care of Iran. “Anything that strengthens the U.S. will strengthen the relations between America and Israel,” said Norman Golden of Norfolk, Va., as he was on his way to lobby his congressman on Capitol Hill. Lenny Greenberg of Cupertino, Calif., agreed, saying that “destabilizing Iraq would be perceived in that part of the world as a success for Iran.”
Cheney’s call for support for the war was seconded Tuesday by Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, leader of the House Republicans, who asked rhetorically at the conference, “Who does not believe that failure in Iraq is a direct threat to the existence of Israel?”
Aipac, facing for the first time in years the challenge of working with a Republican administration and a Democratic Congress, made every attempt to prove its bipartisanship by inviting representatives from both sides and arguing that the issues of support for Israel and of countering Iran are not part of the political battlefield.
Yet the conference turned out to be all but bipartisan after the debate over the war in Iraq took center stage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another keynote speaker at the event, also touched on the issue of the war, making the case for supporting Democratic legislative attempts to set a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Pelosi said that the war had failed to make America safer and stronger. Nor did it make the region more stable. “The war in Iraq fails on all three scores,” Pelosi said, drawing applause from about half the crowd and scattered booing from several delegates.
Raising the issue of support for the war comes as recent data shows that the Jewish community is strongly opposed to it. A poll last month by the Gallup Organization placed the American Jewish community at the top of the list of “major” religious groups in opposition to the war.
The debate also coincides with a new resolution, approved Monday by the executive committee of the Union of Reform Judaism, to oppose a troop surge in Iraq and call for a timetable for withdrawal of troops.
The decision makes the Reform movement — the largest synagogue denomination in the United States — the only sizable group to go on the record in opposition to the war. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told the Forward that the new resolution fairly reflects the attitude of the Jewish community toward the war. “It is not us that are out of step with American Jews,” Yoffie said.
Commenting on some of the remarks made at the Aipac conference in Washington by Israeli and American officials, Yoffie added that “it is worth asking if our actions in Iraq are strengthening Israel.” Yoffie suggested that the ongoing war in Iraq makes it more difficult for the United States to deal with the Iranian threat.
Overall Aipac is not taking an official stand on resolutions regarding the war in Iraq, and is not lobbying for or against legislative efforts calling for troop withdrawal.
The message Aipac delegates tookto Capitol Hill was a call for strong economic action against Iran, in order to deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear project.
The main legislative issue for Aipac activists was a set of bills aimed at isolating Tehran economically by boycotting firms and countries that do business with Iran and by requiring American pension funds to divest from companies that do business with the Islamic Republic.
In plenary meetings and breakout sessions, speakers underlined the value of economic pressure as the most efficient way of coercing Tehran without resorting to military action. Experts such as Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stressed that Iran has proved to be sensitive to economic pressure and that sustained boycotts and sanctions can help turn the Iranian people against the mullahs. Elected officials from states that have already divested from firms that deal with Iran spoke to the delegates about their experience and explained the process of divestiture.
One activist from another organization who attended the conference said that focusing on economic pressure is a result of concern within the Jewish community of being portrayed as pushing for war against Iran. “No one here feels comfortable about this,” the activist said.
An Aipac source argued that pushing for economic sanctions against Iran represents the current consensus both in the Jewish community and in the political system. The lobby’s president, Howard Friedman, told the Forward that “as long as we are doing the right thing, I think we’ll be okay.”
Yet, behind the scenes and within the audience, talk of action against Iran was less guarded.
Senator Joe Lieberman, speaking to a group of Aipac donors, quoted Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who said that when it comes to Iran, there are “far more voices that sound like Chamberlain than like Churchill.” Lieberman called on the activists to “find the voice of Churchill” inside themselves.
The setting and the agenda of Aipac’s policy conference highlighted the strategic threats that Israel is facing. A slideshow that opened the conference featured photos of Katyusha rockets hitting Israel’s northern towns, photos of suicide attacks and pictures from Iran’s Holocaust denial conference. With a background of dramatic music accompanying the show, pictures of Ahmadinejad appeared, followed by Hezbollah’s Nasrallah and by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands with Hamas leaders. In the panel discussion that came after the slideshow, former CIA director] James Woolsey warned that if Iran gets the bomb, “Israel would be the first target.”
While putting public emphasis on economic measure against Iran, Aipac worked on Capitol Hill to drop a suggested amendment in the supplemental budget request that would require congressional approval before taking military action against Iran. Aipac’s action — first reported by Congressional Quarterly — was not part of the major public lobbying effort of the delegates attending the conference, but was carried out by Aipac staff lobbyists who argued that denying the president his ability to take military action against Iran would handicap America’s deterrence.
“We should be mindful that President Ahmadinejad and the mullahs are watching Washington very closely,” Aipac’s executive director, Howard Kohr, said in his Monday address to the delegates. “Any sign of weakness, any sense that we are willing to take options off the table, will be taken as a signal that they can proceed with their plans.”
The Democratic leadership caucus decided Tuesday to drop the restriction that would prohibit the president from taking military action against Iran without prior authorization from Congress.
One Jewish group chose this week to break ranks with the sanction-only policy toward Iran and called on the United States to engage in dialogue with Tehran. Americans for Peace Now issued a statement in which it calls on the administration to engage in diplomatic talks with Iran. “The national security interests of both Israel and the U.S. are best served by the U.S. adopting a constructive, proactive approach in dealing with Iran,” Peace Now’s statement reads.
While making clear that the new policy statement was not timed to correspond with the Aipac policy conference, sources in the group said that the statement reflects the concern among members that major Jewish and pro-Israeli groups are urging the administration to escalate its approach toward Iran.
Peace Now also called on the United States to drop “its dogmatic and myopic focus on President [Ahmadinejad].”
“Today, by making him the sole focus of U.S. policy,” the group argued, “the U.S. is in effect enhancing his status and increasing his power — even as there is growing evidence of popular dissatisfaction with [Ahmadinejad], based on his poor performance in the domestic political arena.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman