Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Middle East Media Sampler 3/7/2012: J-Street vs AIPAC

From DG:
1) AIPAC vs. J-Street

J-Street, the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization praised President Obama's speech at AIPAC:
We commend President Obama’s sensible approach to this urgent problem outlined in his speech to AIPAC (March 4) and in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (March 2) – a commitment to continued international economic pressure and an open offer to return to the diplomatic table if Iran is willing to negotiate verifiable assurances that it is not seeking nuclear weapons.
In the President’s words, “[I]t is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.” 
This measured combination of pressure through sanctions and diplomacy needs to be given time to work. The President argued strongly against a rush to military action, urging that “now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in.” We are pleased to hear from the President “that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”
J-Street is saying "we're glad that the decision to attack Iran will be a sensible American one, only after tough diplomacy has had time to work." As noted below, this is a subtext to much of the analysis in the New York Times and Washington Post.

It must be galling for J-Street, which advertised itself as an alternative to AIPAC representing a significant portion of pro-Israel American Jewry, to have to comment on a speech the president gave to AIPAC, rather than boasting about his appearance at J-Street's upcoming convention.

Josh Block wrote that the speech is a sign of How AIPAC beat J-Street:
Some, like Michael Lerner of the fringe-left Tikkun magazine and self-proclaimed "pro-Israel and pro-peace" group J Street, an old-wine new-bottle version of groups long calling for pressure on Israel, cheered the White House's approach. Many were frequent visitors to the West Wing. Their calls for an increasingly confrontational style with the Jewish state were suddenly en vogue. 
In more recent months, however, things have changed. As ideology gave way to reality, longtime Middle East hands and mainstream pro-Israel organizations, which have long argued the Obama administration's publicly confrontational approach was faulty, appear to have won the White House over to their side.  
This transformation was on full display during the president's remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference, which has gathered 14,000 people in Washington to voice their support for a close U.S.-Israel relationship. "[T]here should not be a shred of doubt by now," Obama said. "When the chips are down, I have Israel's back."
Clearly this is a far cry from when President Obama said that it was good for there to be "daylight" between the positions of Israel and the United States. For sure a contributing factor was Mahmoud Abbas's continued defiance of the administration.  It's also unclear how long this new found commitment to Israel will last. On the other hand, as Barry Rubin pointed out, the President has now said some things that cannot be unsaid.

2) President Obama at AIPAC

Candidate Obama at AIPAC in 2008:
Finally, let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel. Sometimes there are no alternatives to confrontation. But that only makes diplomacy more important. If we must use military force, we are more likely to succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.

President Obama at AIPAC in 2012:
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. 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. 
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. 
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.
Iran, Israel and the United States - New York Times Editorial
Mr. Obama has long said that all options are on the table. In recent days his language has become more pointed — urged on, undoubtedly, by Israel’s threats to act alone. 
Last week he told The Atlantic, “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” In a speech on Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he declared that his policy is not to contain Iran, it is “to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Mr. Obama is right that military action should only be the last resort, but Israel should not doubt this president’s mettle. Neither should Iran.
The U.S.-Israel trust gap on Iran - Washington Post Editorial
Another factor is more subject to U.S. influence. Israeli commanders judge that in a few months, once Iran has fully prepared a new nuclear facility located under a mountain, Israel’s capacity to disable the program with air strikes will be greatly reduced. The United States would retain a military window of opportunity for longer. But can the Netanyahu government count on the Obama administration to act if a moment of truth arrives? For now, several top Israeli officials are skeptical. That is where Mr. Panetta and Mr. Obama should be making an effort. Rather than publicly arguing with Israel, they should be more clearly spelling out U.S. willingness to take military action if Iran is discovered taking steps toward bomb-making, such as enriching its uranium beyond present levels or expelling U.N. inspectors. Saying “all options are on the table” is not enough; the Obama administration should be explicit about Iranian actions that will violate its red lines — and what the consequences will be.
AIPAC beats the war drums - Dana Milbank
Obama, who used his address to warn Iran that he wasn’t bluffing about the possibility of a preemptive strike, repeated his threat while sitting in the Oval Office on Monday with Netanyahu. “My policy here is not going to be one of containment,” he said. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it.” Obama spoke of the standoff with Iran entering “a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.” 
Whatever private misgivings Obama may have about a strike on Iran, his rhetoric this week could easily be considered a green light for Israeli action. And if Obama is flashing a green light, Israel’s advocates in Congress are waving a starter’s flag. Mitt Romney, in an op-ed written for Tuesday’s Washington Post, called for expanding aircraft carrier presence in the region.
‘Loose Talk of War’ Only Helps Iran, President Says - by Helene Cooper
For Mr. Obama, the speech, before some of Israel’s loudest and staunchest supporters in the United States, was a political high-wire act, an effort to demonstrate his commitment to Israel’s security without signaling American support for a pre-emptive strike against Iran. And it was an effort to confront the Republican presidential candidates who have turned the Iranian nuclear issue into the top item in their litmus test for demonstrating support for Israel.
Obama assures Netanyahu on efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program -  by Scott Wilson and Joby Warrick,
At the White House meeting, Obama made clear to Netanyahu that his policy is not to contain an Iranian nuclear arsenal but to prevent Iran’s leaders from developing one, administration officials said. In making his case for diplomacy over a military strike, Obama also assured Netanyahu that Israel has the right to act in its own national security interests.
In public and private statements in recent days, Obama urged Israel to refrain from a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that many in the administration feared would set off a regional war in the volatile Middle East. Such a conflict in the oil-rich region would send gasoline prices even higher, exacerbating an election-year threat to Obama. 
A few months would allow for the full array of economic sanctions against Iran to take effect this summer, including an embargo on its lifeblood oil industry and banking sector. That time would also help preserve the international coalition that is aligned against Iran’s nuclear program — a fragile diplomatic front that administration officials say would shatter if Israel struck prematurely.
 Israel's best friend - by Thomas Friedman
Every Israeli and friend of Israel should be thankful to the president for framing the Iran issue this way. It is important strategically for Israel, because it makes clear that dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat was not Israel’s problem alone. And it is important politically, because this decision about whether to attack Iran is coinciding with the U.S. election. The last thing Israel or American friends of Israel — Jewish and Christian — want is to give their enemies a chance to claim that Israel is using its political clout to embroil America in a war that is not in its interest.
The Real Meaning of Obama’s New Policy: War Is Inevitable - by Barry Rubin
Whether he realizes it or not, Obama changed history with his AIPAC speech. What he did is to make a war between Israel and Iran almost inevitable, let’s say more than 90 percent probable, most likely some time in late 2013, 2014, or 2015.
Obama laid out a very clear chain of events. If and when Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, then the U.S. government will support an attack by Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities. It might even join in with such an attack. 
This is a commitment that cannot be retracted. It will apply whether Obama wins or loses the election. It will apply if he changes his mind. Some will see his action as heroic; others will see it as reckless. But it makes no sense to see it as false or to nitpick about his precise definition of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
A few themes emerge from these various reports and analyses.

1) President Obama took a strong stand against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons in his AIPAC speech in order to reassure Israel.

2) President Obama made the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons an American, not just an Israeli one.

The implications of these two themes varies somewhat. A number of the articles focusing on the first theme present Obama as needing to rein in Israeli belligerence. Unfortunately, though they generally acknowledge that the risks Israel would take in attacking Iran, they imply that an Israeli attack would be an overreaction rather than a carefully considered action taken only when Israel has determined that it has no choice.

In the last two cases, Thomas Friedman and Barry Rubin seem to agree about how strong the commitment President Obama made to Israel was. Friedman, however, casts it as President Obama has done this to make sure that it is judicious American criteria - not reckless Israeli fears - that will determine whether or not there is a war to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Rubin, on the other hand, shows that the commitment is not a red or yellow light to Israeli action, but a green one.
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