Nathalie Tamam is Political Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.
When considering this year’s America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Conference there is really only one takeaway; it’s finally decision time on Iran’s nuclear programme. The words ‘Peace Process’ or ‘Palestinian’ were barely uttered in the speeches of both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Whilst receiving a warmer reception than last year, praise for Obama was muted. His speech and ever impressive oratorical style was intended to reassure Israel and the American Jewish community of his on-going and committed support.
He asked the audience to look at his words and his deeds; the military and intelligence cooperation; the critical funding to deploy the Iron Dome system; and the diplomatic assistance given when the Goldstone Report was produced, during the flotilla incident and at the UN.
The audience clapped but the cheers and woops synonymous with AIPAC conferences in years gone by were suspiciously absent. The crowd was not entirely convinced.
And then Obama moved onto the main issue; Iran. He deployed all the usual rhetoric that everybody wanted to hear. The audience pepped up, they became interested in how far he would actually go.
Needless to say, he walked the line between giving too much away and saying too little, and re-enforced his commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
He made no mention of timetables, red lines or what might actually activate military action. However, he said ‘Iran's leaders…should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs’. He also stated he had ‘Israel’s back’ seemingly giving Israel the green light to take the necessary steps whilst placing the US in the role of junior partner in any military action.
Numerous times, he repeated that he was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But, he failed to make any remarks on where the US stood regarding the Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon. This effectively settled any debate regarding what the goal of U.S. policy really is. Essentially the US is trying to prevent a weapon, rather than the broader capability to build a weapon. A nuanced point, but important to note nonetheless.
It was also puzzling when he stated ‘I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon’. Does he have a ‘policy’ to prevent Iran or is he actually going to prevent Iran? We were none the wiser.
The next day, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu took to the stage. There was no talk of settlements or security, refugees or land swaps. The Palestinians were not mentioned. Netanyahu had existential issues to discuss and the focus was singularly Iran.
In an impressive speech, he outlined the costs of not stopping the Islamic Republic; a nuclear race in the Middle East; the protection of terrorist groups under an Iranian nuclear umbrella; and skyrocketing oil prices. ‘We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.’
And then he brought out the big guns (excuse the pun). Holding up copies of the exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the US War Department in 1944, he told the story of how the WJC, when imploring the War Department to bomb Auschwitz, were rebuffed and told it would be strategically impossible.
Whilst Netanyahu asserted that America is a very different place now, in invoking the Holocaust Netanyahu made clear he would be willing to go all the way. ‘As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation… when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.’
He was effectively telling Obama that diplomacy and sanctions, whilst beginning to bite, are failing to deter Iran from their end goal. He made clear that Israel could not allow arbitrary timetables to dominate its decision making on this most important issue. His message was, if push came to shove Israel would act.
Taking the two speeches together, it would appear that the policy differences that have characterised the Obama/Netanyahu relationship remain. Obama’s resolve was clear, but fundamentally, for him the threat of Iran is not all consuming in the way it is for Netanyahu. I left the conference with a real sense of foreboding. Only time will tell how this particular chapter in history will play out.