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Reactions to Obama's AIPAC Speech

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On March 4, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual policy conference. In his speech Obama emphasised his strong support for the State of Israel, and policy on Iran.

Regarding his support for Israel Obama said:

"Four years ago, I stood before you and said that, ‘Israel's security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable.' That belief has guided my actions as President. The fact is my administration's commitment to Israel's security has been unprecedented.... And make no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel's qualitative military edge - because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat...And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now - when the chips are down, I have Israel's back..."

Regarding preventing the Iranian regime from obtaining nuclear weapons, Obama stated that all options including military are on the table, but emphasised that sanctions should be given an opportunity to work: He said:

"Iran's leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.... 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. 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. Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick."

To view the full speech on YouTube - click here.

To read the full text - click here.

Obama's speech was welcomed by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Peres, who also spoke at the AIPAC conference, said that Obama's speech showed that he was "determined to prevent a nuclear Iran" and that "A President cannot be expected mention dates, but he was very clear with regards to the steps. I was impressed by his seriousness, knowledge and honesty. He went as far as an American president could go".

Obama also met with Peres who said:

"It was an excellent meeting with President Obama...He reinforced the things he said in his speech and went into more details. I left with the feeling that he is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and he is very serious. Obama told me that Israel's security is an American national security interest. I didn't find him to even stutter. He is sharply clear and is not playing politics. I am sure that [Netanyahu] will be received very warmly in the White House tomorrow."

Netanyahu, who subsequently met Obama (more on that in future posts), also praised Obama's speech and said he appreciated the fact that Obama reiterated his position that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear arms and that all options are on the table in this regard. Netanyahu also said:

"Perhaps more than anything I appreciate his statement that Israel must be able to defend itself against any threat".

However, some commentators have greeted Obama's speech with scepticism questioning his Administration's support of Israel in the past four years, and its policy on Iran, which appears to be operating on a different timeline to Israel.

Dan Senor, co-author of Start Up Nation, in the Wall Street Journal questioned the Obama Administration's support for Israel:

"It is true that there has been increased US funding for Israeli defense programs, the bulk of which comes from Mr. Obama maintaining a 10-year commitment made by President George W. Bush to Israel's government in 2007. But a key element of Israel's security is deterrence. That deterrence rests on many parts, including the perception among its adversaries that Israel will defend itself, and that if Israel must take action America will stand by Israel."

Senor goes on to list the various ways that the Obama Administration has undermined this deterrence capability.

Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Barry Rubin also countered Obama's record of ‘achievement' regarding Israel and the Middle East, he notes:

"For example, on Iran there were his long attempts to court Iran and failure to support the opposition; his slowness on pushing forward sanctions; efforts to reduce congressional sanctions' proposals; and giving a free pass to Russia, China, and Turkey to break the sanctions... And then there's the history of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" policy that always gave the Palestinian Authority a pass and put the onus on Israel; all the events you know about; the dissing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the pressure on Israel to dismantle sanctions on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and so on. Finally, and most serious, is the policy toward revolutionary Islamists and their rule or takeover of Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia."

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin commented that Obama's AIPAC speech highlighted the differences between US and Israeli policy on Iran:

"...Obama repeatedly talked about not letting Iran get its hands on a nuclear weapon. This is not how Israel sees things. The Jewish state is determined not to permit Iran to get a nuclear weapons capability. Israel can't wait for Iran to actually get a bomb...

But of course the real issues remain: 1) There is no evidence the Iran nuclear program has slowed because of sanctions (the reverse is true); 2) He actually seems to believe diplomacy is the only way to solve the Iranian threat; and 3) The timetable for sanctions and diplomacy to "work" will soon stretch beyond the time by which Israel must act in its own defense, leaving it dependent on U.S. action."

Obama preceeded his AIPAC speech with an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic Magazine which appeared to outline the policy positions of the US President prior to his meeting with Netanyahu on Monday. While Obama and Netanyahu both agree that Iran must be stopped from developing nuclear weapons, they appear to differ on the means to achieve that. In his interview with Goldberg, for the first time Obama explicitly said that the US would consider a military option on Iran. However, like his AIPAC speech Obama warned against an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran at this time in favour of sanctions. Obama said:

"But as Israel's closest friend and ally...I do point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt. In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily."

Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz welcomed Obama's comments in the Goldberg interview, noting:

"In his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic Magazine, President Obama sent a clear message to the Iranians that he is not bluffing, that he means it when he says that American policy is not to accept a nuclear Iran, and that no option, including a military one, is off the table if sanctions and threats appear not to be working....For those who have claimed that Obama is anti-Israel and/or weak on Iran, these forceful statements should make them reconsider. I, for one, am satisfied with the President's words..."

However, Dershowitz did note the difference in timeline and red lines between the US and Israel:

"Israel has a closer red line, because it may soon lack the military capacity to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, if that program succeeds in going underground to bunkers that are impenetrable to Israeli bombs. The United States has more time, and a further red line, because it has far greater capacity to destroy even a deeply buried Iranian nuclear weapons program. This difference requires the Israelis to place great trust in President Obama's promises."

No doubt these policy differences on Iran were discussed in detail when Netanyahu met Obama in Washington DC overnight - though publicly the two were keen to stress their unity or purpose and common interests. 

Sharyn Mittelman

 

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