There were a few surprises at Monday night’s AIPAC meeting. Throughout the previous two days, AIPAC spokesmen regularly championed the bi-partisan nature of Congress’s resolve to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but by the end of the evening the differences in their approach and resolve were apparent, and so were the sympathies of the more than 13,000 attendees.
First up was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He laid out the many ways in which Iran has acted as a dangerous and terrorist rogue state, and noted that while the Obama administration may share the common goal of stopping Iran from going nuclear, they had not come close to achieving success.It was the failure of Obama’s diplomacy from the beginning of his term that had forced Congress to act and would do so again.
The reason, McConnell said, was that the administration’s policy contained a “critical flaw.” At first, the Obama team tried to negotiate with Iran by extending an open hand in friendship, but two different offers and deadlines to meet with their leaders in September and December of 2009 came and went with no results. Iran just continued to work on getting their bomb. As Congress grew impatient, it initiated a sanctions policy which the president opposed, eventually reluctantly signing it.Congress then handed the president an additional tool “he did not seek or ask for,” that of sanctions against the banks doing business with Iran.
But now, according to McConnell, the president’s current error is to rely too heavily on sanctions alone. To say “all options are on the table,” McConnell said, might be a good talking point, but it is not a policy. Threats alone, he noted, “have lost their intended purpose.” A red line only works if the definition of that line is clearly spelled out and what the painful consequences will be if crossed. In light of the president’s reluctance to do it, McConnell laid out his plan:
“If at any time the intelligence community presents the Congress with an assessment that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, or has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon — consistent with protecting classified sources and methods — I will consult with the President and joint congressional leadership and introduce before the Senate an authorization for the use of military force. This authorization, if enacted, will ensure the nation and the world that our leaders are united in confronting Iran, and will undermine the perception that the U.S. is wounded or retreating from global responsibilities.“
McConnell’s plan of action, which received many very enthusiastic standing ovations, was followed by former House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. You had to feel sorry for the woman who reiterated President Obama’s plea to have patience and let sanctions work, and then reminded the audience of everything the Democrats had done to support Israel over the years, and went on to tell the story of her family’s commitment to a Jewish homeland before Israel existed. All this was appreciated, but after McConnell it fell rather flat. Indeed, her plea that “Iran must abandon the reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons” sounded so lame, that it made her appear to be giving endorsement to McConnell’s very strong argument, since she literally said nothing to show she believed any teeth should be applied to Iran at all, outside of continuing with current administration policy.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu finally took the podium to thunderous applause, he spoke not just as a politician and the head of Israel, but as the historical memory and leader of the Jewish people. He reminded his audience that in every generation people sought the annihilation of the Jews and now that threat was represented by Iran. But this time it was different, now the Jews had ceased to be the powerless people incapable of stopping the Holocaust. They had their own state that could and would protect them.
Praising Obama for understanding that American policy is not one of “containment,” Netanyahu went on to emphasize that “those who seek our destruction cannot have the means to obtain that goal.” Proceeding to criticize the words of pundits who say either that the world can live with an Iranian bomb, or that Iran can be deterred, the prime minister continued: “Responsible leaders should not bet the security of their country on the most dangerous regime whose leaders will use the most dangerous weapons” against their proclaimed enemies. He asked everyone to consider one question: If a regime seizes embassies, stones women to death, kills gays, gives support to Assad, and foments the terrorism of Hamas and Hezbollah, and does this before even getting the bomb, what would it do once it obtained it? Instead of talking about the great costs of stopping them, he said, one has to talk about the cost of not stopping them.“I promise you,” he said, “as Israel’s prime minister I will never gamble with the security of Israel.”
Yes, the P.M. added, it would be best if Iran abandoned its programs peacefully. But for fifteen years, it has been a danger to the peace of the world, and the truth is that “diplomacy has not worked,” nor, he added, have sanctions. Israel, he said, has waited patiently for the international community to resolve the issue, for diplomacy and then sanctions to work. “None of us,” he concluded, “can afford to wait much longer. I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”
He noted that some commentators have argued that it is less dangerous for Iran to get an atomic bomb than what it would take to stop them, since force would provoke a more vindictive response from Iran. Turning to history to prove his point, Netanyahu told the audience about the request that the World Jewish Congress had made to the U.S. War Department in 1944, asking that the allies bomb the railroad tracks at Auschwitz. Several weeks later they received their answer. The railroad tracks could not be destroyed, the Department wrote back, because it might “provoke” the Nazis to do even worse!
He concluded, 2012 is not 1944. The Jewish people are different and have a state of their own, a Jewish state that will “defend Jewish lives and fight for our very survival.” Yelling out the slogan “Never Again,” Netanyahu concluded that Israel must “have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threats. When it comes to our survival we must remain the master of our fate.” Israel, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Purim, is a “Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people,” and he ended by expressing his gratitude “to have friends who love the state of Israel and respect its right to defend itself.”
Netanyahu did not say what transpired in his meeting with Obama. He did not have to. He praised the president’s speech and agreed with him that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, that all options are on the table, and that containment is not acceptable. But he made it clear that if Iran does not stop its march to nuclear capability, Israel will have to act to defend the Jewish people, and prevent another Holocaust in the making. In making that case, he threw down a gauntlet to Obama, the world at large, and especially the mullahs in Iran. Netanyahu means what he says, and Obama must take him very, very seriously.
The president may claim that he has Israel’s back, and will stand with the Jewish state in its time of need. Clearly, the AIPAC audience — a good many of whose members are Democrats who want to support their president — was not satisfied with his assurances. Nor, most likely, was Prime Minister Netanyahu. When push comes to shove, he asserted, it will be up to Israel to defend itself. Its leaders have learned from history that it cannot afford to rely on others, even those who purport to be its best friends. That message, we trust, was not lost on Barack Obama and his advisors.