Setting the stage for his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, President Obama stated America’s principles for dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat.
In a speech at the largest ever gathering of pro-Israeli activists on Sunday, Obama made clear that the U.S. is willing to use its military force to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But in a pointed message to Netanyahu’s government and its American advocates, he stressed that now is the time for diplomacy to play its role and not “the time for bluster.”
Read Forward editor Jane Eisner’s blog post ‘Obama to AIPAC: A Matter of Trust’
The enormous audience at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee conference greeted a few parts of the speech with polite silence, but most of the crowd seemed to heartily endorse Obama’s rationale for focusing on diplomacy while not ruling out military action in confronting with Iran. Adding a needed boost to Obama’s message was a warm embrace by Israeli president Shimon Peres who, speaking to reporters after Obama’s speech, described the address as “the most pro-Israeli speech” he had ever heard from an American president.
Obama and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Monday before noon for a working discussion followed by a joint luncheon. The two leaders’ meeting comes at a time of a heated debate within Israel and between Israel and the U.S. about the preferred course of action regarding Iran. While administration officials and top military brass in the U.S. warned against an Israeli unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear weapon, Israeli officials have increased threats of taking action even before the U.S. completes its diplomatic drive to sway Iran by using sanctions and international pressure.
Both Obama and Peres sought to ease these tensions in their speeches on Sunday that stressed the broad understanding between the two nations and the ongoing cooperation in countering military and diplomatic threats.
Obama, well aware of the election-year political environment, did not shy away from dealing with his perceived vulnerability among Jewish voters because of his relations with Israel, an issue that has been amplified by Republican rivals in recent months. “So if during this political season you hear some question my Administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts,” Obama urged his listeners.
“And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics.”
But partisan politics was front and center at the AIPAC gathering, which will host in a three-day parley all leading political figures, including the President, three of the Republican presidential hopefuls and numerous members of Congress from both parties.
A panel discussion on AIPAC’s center stage demonstrated just how heated the discussion can get. Liz Cheney, a prominent Republican thinker and frequent guest at AIPAC events, said that she predicts that when the group convenes again next year “it will be to celebrate a restored relationship under a brand-new president.”
Cheney added that: “There is no president who has done more to delegitimize the state of Israel in recent history than President Obama..”
The blunt political statement was met by applause mainly from the periphery of the crowded room, while those in the center of the hall, where top donors and long-time activists were seated, remained silent. Responding to Cheney on stage was Jane Harman, a former Democratic member of Congress, who said it would be “a grave mistake to turn Israel into a political football.” Harman’s response won cheers from throughout the room and seemed to have struck a chord with the mainstream of AIPAC delegates.
In his 34-minute speech, President Obama detailed the actions his administrastion has taken to support Israel and then moved on to outline and explain his policy toward Iran, arguing that sanctions and international pressure are bearing fruit.
“I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy – backed by pressure – to succeed,” Obama said. “The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists.” The President added that he prefers a peaceful solution to the Iranian crisis and directed a message at Israel urging it to recalibrate its rhetoric on this issue.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program,” Obama said, “For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.”
This is expected to be the main point of contention in Obama’s Monday meeting with Netanyahu. Israelis, while expressing their support for America’s sanction policy, are concerned that Washington and Jerusalem hold different views as to how much time is available for pressuring Iran diplomatically.
Obama made clear in his speech that the U.S. is willing to use “all elements of American power” including “a military effort to be prepared for any contingency” when dealing with Iran. This was Obama’s most detailed response to date regarding American plans for dealing with Iran, but it is still not clear if it is detailed enough for Netanyahu, who is seeking a definition of “red lines” which if crossed American will take action.
Obama’s position seemed to be enough for Peres, who was honored by AIPAC for his lifetime work on behalf of the State of Israel. “We have a friend in the White House,” said the 88-year-old Israeli president, who thanked Obama for his support. Obama later made the surprise announcement from the podium that Peres will be awarded with the highest civilian honor in America, the Medal of Freedom.
Contact Nathan Guttman at Guttman@forward.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.