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 email@example.com
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 Haaretz 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.