In the largest gathering in the history of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, 13,000 delegates from all over the United States joined with hundreds of diplomats, politicians and Middle East experts in Washington D.C. at the AIPAC 2012 Policy Conference to listen, discuss and debate the future of Israel-U.S. relations.
The assembly was filled with the tension of crucial decisions that the leaders of Israel must make to ensure its survival plus the reality of a rapidly-approaching American presidential election that will make those decisions even more challenging.
The global threat posed by a nuclear Iran and the possibility of looming military action by both Israel and the United States dampened much of the exuberance felt at previous conferences.
AIPAC 2012 delegates were able to attend speeches and briefings by top U.S. and Israeli policymakers. Headlining the Policy Conference were presentations by President of Israel Shimon Peres, U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Senator Joe Lieberman, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Sunday’s opening speech by Presidents Obama and Peres set the tone for the Policy Conference with a thorough and chilling description of a nuclear-armed Iran and the responsibilities of the United States and Israel.
The questions surrounding the handling of Iran’s continuation of its military nuclear aspirations are enormous. The choices presented by policymakers at the conference included: tightening sanctions on Iran until their economy breaks down; a “Policy of Containment” of allowing Iran to go nuclear by utilizing the Cold War strategy of “mutually-assured destruction,” that is, fear of mutual annihilation to keep them under control; or the use of military action to destroy and/or delay the nuclear aspirations of the current government in Iran. In all cases, the hope is that eventually the people of Iran, much like the people of Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and the other “Arab Spring” countries will overthrow the existing despotic regime.
It has been the policy of the U.S. government under President Obama to impose sanctions on Iran and it had been the perception of many close to the President that implicitly opposed the use of physical force on Iran and would consider a policy of “containment” rather than war. This idea has been stated by most of the Republican candidates in their criticism of the Obama administration.
The speech by President Obama at the AIPAC Conference clearly reversed that possibility, with the President stating: “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. And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
President Obama added that: “I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power. A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.”
Regarding the widespread fear of the President’s pressuring Israel to abide by a decision of the United States for Israel whether it will allow military action against Iran, Obama declared that “We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”
Obama reminded everyone that it is not a good idea to discuss the issue of war in the open as it will only help the enemy in their preparation, He said: “Moving forward, I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues; the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. 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. As we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve, and that our coordination with Israel will continue.”
Numerous other U.S. lawmakers such as Senator Joe Lieberman, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made similar statements in their presentations during the Policy Conference. Senator Lieberman’s remarks especially resonated with the audience, as when he said: “I do not believe that military action to disable Iran’s nuclear project is unavoidable. That choice is Iran’s. We also have choices to make. If a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, as we all say it is, we must make clear to the world that we are prepared to do whatever is necessary to prevent the unacceptable. The President has said he doesn’t bluff, and neither can we in Congress. There is nothing more harmful to our chances of stopping Iran peacefully than the suspicion that, in the end, we will give up and let them have nuclear weapons. The Iranian regime must hear this message from us, and we must state it loud and clear: either you peacefully negotiate an end to your illicit nuclear activities, or they will be ended for you by military attack.”
The various lawmakers all agreed that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are both a danger to Israel, the United States and the whole world. President Obama stated: “Let’s begin with a basic truth that you all understand: no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction.” He continued: “A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States. Indeed, the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the non-proliferation regime that we have done so much to build. There are risks that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization. It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the most volatile regions in the world. It would embolden a regime that has brutalized its own people, and it would embolden Iran’s proxies, who have carried out terrorist attacks from the Levant to southwest Asia.”
There was much talk preceding the Policy Conference of that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would make a “breaking news” statement at the AIPAC either about Iran or the Palestinian issue. His presentation on Monday evening to a packed conference hall had neither.
Netanyahu’s powerful and well-delivered speech reiterated most of what Obama stated and promised in his earlier presentation, the difference being that it was coming from an Israeli leader, responsible for the citizens of a nation facing a far more direct threat by the Iranian military buildup. There was an appearance of understanding between the two leaders, though some attendees noted that they were left with the feeling that Netanyahu had more to say, some which may have been eliminated from the final presentation.
“Every day,” said Netanyahu during his speech, “I open the newspapers and read about these redlines and these timelines. I read about what Israel has supposedly decided to do, or what Israel might do. Well, I’m not going to talk to you about what Israel will do or will not do, I never talk about that. But I do want to talk to you about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. I want to explain why Iran must never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. President Obama has reiterated his commitment to prevent that from happening. He stated clearly that all options are on the table, and that American policy is not containment.
“Well, Israel has exactly the same policy — we are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; we leave all options on the table; and containment is definitely not an option. The Jewish state will not allow those who seek our destruction to possess the means to achieve that goal. A nuclear armed Iran must be stopped.”
“Fortunately,” the Israeli Prime Minister continued, “President Obama and most world leaders understand that the claim that Iran’s goal is not to develop nuclear weapons is simply ridiculous. Yet incredibly, some are prepared to accept an idea only slightly less preposterous: that we should accept a world in which the Ayatollahs have atomic bombs. Sure, they say, Iran is cruel, but it’s not crazy. It’s detestable but its deterrent able.
“My friends, responsible leaders should not bet the security of their countries on the belief that the world’s most dangerous regimes won’t use the world’s most dangerous weapons. And I promise you that as Prime Minister, I will never gamble with the security of the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu ended his speech by reminding all present that Israel today is not Israel of 1948 and that the Jewish people today are not the same as those who marched to their deaths in the Holocaust. He also referred to recent criticism in the media about discrimination by Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox against women, saying “The Jewish people are also different. Today we have a state of our own. And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future. Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. We deeply appreciate the great alliance between our two countries. But when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.
“As Prime Minister of Israel, I will always protect Israel’s democracy – always. I will never allow anything to threaten Israel’s democratic way of life, and most especially, I will never tolerate any discrimination against women.”
The view expressed by many AIPAC delegates to the Jewish Voice was that there has never been a higher level of bi-partisan support for Israel at the Congressional level, and that a second term candidate for President Obama would be more or less in step with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The President did, however request a bit more time to allow the sanctions against Iran to work.
It was announced by President Obama at the Conference, that aging Israel President Shimon Peres would be receiving this spring at the White House, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest non-military decoration, and the highest award that can be given to a foreign dignitary.