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After Pro-Israel Conference, Gaps Remain Between Netanyahu and Obama

Mitchell Plitnick*

WASHINGTON, Mar 7 2012 (IPS) - More than 10,000 U.S. citizens descended on Capitol Hill Tuesday under the direction of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading voice of the powerful Israel lobby here, to urge their congressional representatives to take a more aggressive stance towards Iran.

Their swarming of Congressional offices marked the final act of their annual three-day conference, which this year featured speeches by President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, three of the four leading Republican contenders for the White House this fall, and the top leaders of both parties in Congress.

The dominant theme of the conference was Iran’s presumed effort to develop nuclear weapons and what to do about it. The tone was heavily tilted toward actual or an increased threat of military action. This stands in stark contrast to Tuesday’s announcement that the U.S., United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany had agreed to resume talks with Iran in hopes of reaching a diplomatic resolution on the Iranian nuclear programme.

President Obama’s speech, at the conference’s opening plenary and ahead of his meeting with Netanyahu the following day, reaffirmed his administration’s policy of applying “crippling” economic sanctions on Iran and leaving the military option as a last resort.

For his part, Netanyahu, who has recently been increasingly vocal about the need for stronger action regarding Iran, tried to strike a balance between avoiding a confrontational tone with Obama similar to the one he took during his controversial trip to Washington for last year’s AIPAC conference, and holding fast to his position that sanctions and diplomacy are not succeeding in their aim to deter Iran from its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

One key area of disagreement between Netanyahu and Obama is where the critical “red line” would be drawn with Iran. Would it be at the point where Iran was about to actually acquire a nuclear weapon, or merely at it gaining the technical capability to do so, a point many analysts believe Iran has already reached.


While Obama reinforced his view that the critical threshold was Iran actually obtaining a weapon, Netanyahu, whose government has long opposed any outcome that would permit Iran to enrich uranium on its own territory, carefully avoided mention in his speech of where the line should be drawn.

“President Obama has … stated clearly that all options are on the table, and that American policy is not containment,” Netanyahu told the AIPAC audience in the cavernous Washington Convention Centre. “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.”

From there, Netanyahu took a more militant stance.

“Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu continued, signaling that, while he may have agreed to let the United States pursue diplomacy for the moment, he was not committed to refraining from his own military action in the future.

Netanyahu’s stance was bolstered by Obama’s potential Republican opponents in November’s election. Each accused the president of not taking a strong enough stance against Iran.

Speaking by satellite hook-up, Mitt Romney, the persistent favourite in the Republican presidential race, criticised Obama’s approach and promised a tougher stance, including a military buildup around Iran aimed at intimidating its leaders.

“I will make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits if it becomes nuclear,” Romney said. “I will engage Iran’s neighbours. I will station multiple carriers and warships at Iran’s door.”

He also won thunderous applause by promising that “… as president, my first foreign trip will not be to Cairo or Riyadh or Ankara. It will be to Jerusalem.”

Obama, however, was not without support at the closing plenary.

Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, who warned that attacking Iran could well prove counterproductive, told the conferees the U.S. was prepared to take military action “when all else fails”.

“We will keep all options – including military action – on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” He described that as “a last alternative when all else fails, but make no mistake, we will act if we have to.”

More dramatically, Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went into some detail about how the United States is already acting to enhance Israeli security, not just in general terms, but in ways that will specifically be of use against an Iranian attack.

“When Iran faces the fateful nuclear decision before it, it will have to recognise that should it cross the red line which would bring about military action against its nuclear facilities, its ability to retaliate, or even credibly threaten to retaliate, against Israel will be severely degraded by Israel’s missile defenses,” many of them developed by U.S. technology and, in the case of one powerful radar system, manned by U.S. troops, Levin told the AIPAC audience.

The United States provides well over than three billion dollars a year in military aid to Israel, an amount that has increased steadily under Obama.

The range of discussion within the conference – normally confined with rather narrow ideological limits – was widened by protest activities outside the convention centre.

The groups “Occupy AIPAC” and CODEPINK demonstrated against the conference from the beginning, picketing and setting up mock checkpoints to remind attendees of one of the key features of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip.

But inside the conference, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands was hardly mentioned, as conference organisers made certain that attention remained focused squarely on Iran and the “existential” its nuclear programme posed to Israel.

With the White House press conference Tuesday afternoon, Obama and his call to give more time for diplomacy got the last word.

“…(B)ecause the sanctions (against Iran) are going to be even tougher in the coming months, because they’re now starting to affect their oil industry, their central bank, and because we’re now seeing noises about them returning to the negotiating table … it is deeply in everybody’s interests – the United States’, Israel’s, and the world’s – to see if this can be resolved in a peaceful fashion,” Obama said Tuesday.

“I think there’s no doubt that those who are suggesting or proposing or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be,” he said in an apparent swipe at Republicans who have lined up behind Netanyahu.

“The Iranians just stated that they are willing to return to the negotiating table, and we’ve got the opportunity, even as we maintain that pressure, to see how it plays out.”

*Jim Lobe contributed to this story.

 
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