He was referring to President Barack Obama and the conversation took place at the AIPAC 2012 Policy Conference at the end of a breakout session titled, “African-Americans and Israel.” That particular session was not about President Obama nor his policy speech before AIPAC. Nonetheless, the jousting about by attendees for a level-headed understanding between the US President, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran on nuclear threats had already become a hallmark of AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference (from 10,000 people last year to over 13,000 this year and an expected 20,000 next year) held in Washington D.C.from March 3-6.
I had just explained to the Chairman that on multiple occasions in history – the 1956 Suez War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for starters – the United States had not acted in the interests of Israel’s defense and had obliged Israel to act against the wishes of the United States. Supporters of Obama had to understand that there is ample reason for Israel NOT to put its fate in the hands of other powers, even superpowers. Keeping fate in her own hands had already proven Israel correct and her detractors wrong.
My answer to the Chairman’s question was this: we can’t know all that either President Obama knows or Netanyahu knows with regard to dealing with Iranian nuclear bomb-making, but Obama only needed to satisfy Netanyahu and not me. If Netanyahu was satisfied, I trusted him enough to decide if President Obama’s deeds would match his words. I would trust Obama if Netanyahu trusted Obama, or not.
More precisely, it is in practice hard for me to know if Bibi Netanyahu is satisfied with Obama or not. Even one year ago he was not, but now the answer is not so clear. President Obama’s speech did not say anything new, and I had expected new ideas. He did not define any red lines on keeping Iranian nuclear enrichment to under 20%, for Iranian cooperation with IAEA demands and inspectors (such as access to high-level Iranian physicists), for explanations of Iranian facilities that cross the line from medical research or electrical power to bomb-making, He assured Israel that he has her back, that he does not intend to let Iran get a nuclear capability, and therefore containment of a post-nuclear Iran is not his policy. Moreover, he noted sanctions were working and would work to stop Iran. Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s sovereignty and the need for Jews not to
relinquish their right to answer threats of liquidation on their own terms. He said there exists a very short window for deciding on the value of sanctions vs military attacks. In another interview later with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, he added that the paradox is that a real, credible and believable threat to the Iranian leadership could cause them to freeze their nuclear program. In that interview, he pointed out that Iran already stopped their program once in 2004 not long after President Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom took down Saddam Hussein and proved a credible threat to the Iranian regime as well.
Throughout the conference there was the call for bi-partisanship, and the acknowledgement that on Israel, the spectrum of political opinion was fairly well united in her defense, but the undertone of my observations was an acknowledgement that partisanship was still very strong. Commentator Liz Cheney and ex-Democrat Representative Jane Harman had a public spat on a panel during one of the plenaries over Obama’s policy on Israel. There was a spirited sort of one-up-man-ship between Republicans and Democrats whose pavilions existed side by side in the Washington Convention Center’s huge basement layout called AIPAC Village. People commented frustratingly about the partisanship, but I found it nothing out of the ordinary and a healthy dose of debate anyway. I found very little support for J-Street, but much concern for the campus cultural wars evolving into anti-Semitism.
There was a huge number of those who are non-Jewish, but who actively participated, including minorities and Christians. Questions regarding
the participation of Muslims seemed to acknowledge their general lack of support for Israel.
Last year I spoke with numerous people from the Chicago contingent to AIPAC, some 800 as I recall, who had voted for President Obama in 2008
but were at the time very disappointed with his Administration’s treatment of Israel since his coming to the White House. I noted this because I reasoned that they knew him best. Although all attendees to this year’s Conference were asked in an email to treat all speakers as guests into your house, the AIPAC house, I think the 2012 Conference tilted strongly toward Netanyahu and was a little cool toward President Obama. There is great concern, even among liberals, that Obama may not have Israel’s back, as he has famously said.
Mitchell Bard, the famous Middle East scholar and author, most recently of “The Arab Lobby,” had put it best in his talk recently at the Boulder JCC. Obama’s 2011 actions vis-a-vis Israel were much more positive than those of his first two years. The question one has to answer, as he put it, is did President Obama see the light or did he see the polls?