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WASHINGTON, DC—Taking the stage before a crowd of more than 13,000 at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, with November’s election looming, President Barack Obama used his Sunday morning address to defend his record on Israel and lay out his policy on Iran.
“As you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words, you can look at my deeds,” Obama said. “At every crucial juncture, at every fork in the road, we have been there for Israel every single time,” he said, listing increased U.S. security assistance, military collaboration, and his administration’s boycott of the anti-Israel Durban conference as examples.
Obama also noted his address to the United Nations General Assembly last September, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made his official bid for Palestinian statehood. Obama openly slammed the effort, stating: “There is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN.” He further stated his support for Israel’s security.
This address to the General Assembly, Obama said Sunday, did not receive a lot of applause, “but it was the right thing to do.”
Then, in a somewhat defensive tone, Obama addressed those who criticize his policies on negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. “I make no apologies for pursuing peace,” he said. “Israel’s own leaders understand the necessity of peace.” Obama has been criticized for putting pressure on Israel to employ a settlement freeze, for urging that it negotiate mutual land swaps based on the 1967 borders, and for other actions.
Obama said Sunday that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met, and that Palestinians as a peace partner must reject violence and adhere to existing agreements with Israel. He called on the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but stopped short of asking Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The president said his actions speak for themselves. “When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” he said.
Obama moved on to Iran, stating “the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” and voiced his strong preference for a diplomatic solution.
“I firmly believe that an opportunity still exists in diplomacy…few thought that international sanctions could put an immediate bite on the Iranian regime,” he said. “They have. Iran is isolated, its leadership divided and under pressure…its ally, the Assad regime, is crumbling.” This July, sanctions will tighten with a European ban on Iranian oil imports, he added.
While “we all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically,” Obama said, “I will not hesitate to use force when necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
In a statement that seemed to offer Israel more latitude than he has in the past, Obama added that “Iran’s leaders should…not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.” Yet, in an interview with the Atlantic last week, Obama made very clear that he cautions Israel against an attack. “At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally, [Syria,] is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?”
During a breakout session at the AIPAC conference, Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, stated that the U.S. currently shies away from expressing the desire to force regime change and make other aggressive moves in Iran, instead reassuring the country that such moves are not imminent. The U.S. would be well served reversing that trend by telling the Iranian regime things the regime is actually afraid of, he said.
In terms of establishing a “red line” for U.S. military action in Iran, Ottolenghi said the administration weakens itself by publicly speaking out against Iran’s material support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, but then allowing Iran to continue that activity without any consequences.
Ali Alfoneh, an expert on Iranian civil-military relations in Iran for the American Enterprise Institute, lent insight on the perceived strength of America’s Iran policy by telling JointMedia News Service,“Most unfortunately, the leaders in the Islamic republic [of Iran] consider the United States of America a declining power.”
“As a declining power, it has not the will—the political will—to use force, literally force, to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power,” Alfoneh said. “The Iranian leaders know that the United States has the capacity and capabilities to do so, but if the political will is not there, why should Iran abandon its nuclear ambitions?”
William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), told JointMedia News Service that Obama’s address “touched all of the right buttons that related to U.S.-Israel relations… as it relates to ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear capacity.”
David A. Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was pleased to hear Obama speak ofkeeping the military option on the table for Iran and “using all the other tools in his arsenal.”
“He spelled it out very clearly and aggressively,” Harris told JointMedia News Service.
However, Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matthew Brooks said Obama’s words do not match “his administration’s weak record on support of Israel.”
Obama’s “deeds” include “unprecedented pressure on Israel not to build in its eternal capital of Jerusalem” and “cutting critical military aid to joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs in a time of need,” Brooks said in a statement.
“The Jewish community is too smart to fall for election-year revisionist history,” Brooks added. “We will remember in November.”