On Tuesday, many of the 14,000 delegates to this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference — by far the largest attendance ever — fanned out across Capitol Hill, with more than 500 meetings planned with congressmen and the staffs of all 100 senators. Their message: the U.S. should close ranks with Israel and get tougher with Iran.
Israeli officials at the conference, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed gratitude to the U.S. for toughened economic sanctions against Tehran, which they noted were having an impact. But few believe that the leaders of the regime are willing to give up their quest for nuclear weapons unless threatened with military force.
Pundits are still parsing the remarks made by President Barack Obama and Netanyahu at the conference and in the public segment of their White House meeting, searching for commonalities and differences. Both were in evidence: the two leaders agreed that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, that containment was not a viable policy, that all options are on the table and that Israel has the sovereign right to take action if it is deemed necessary.
But Obama said he still believes diplomacy can work — the U.S. and Europeans offered a new round this week — and the president has not said that America would take military action before Iran acquires the capability to make a bomb.
The tenor among panelists at the AIPAC conference was that negotiations are fruitless, just a way for Iran to stall while continuing its nuclear program, and that the regime leaders would only respond to military threats.
The Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking before Netanyahu at the conference Monday evening, said he may introduce a bill authorizing the U.S. to use military force against Iran if it begins to enrich uranium at weapons-grade level or decides to develop nuclear weapons.
While Netanyahu expressed a sense of impatience in his AIPAC speech, noting that negotiations and sanctions have not prompted Iran to end its nuclear plans and that time is running out, he was less confrontational in his dealings with the president than he was 10 months ago. At that time, as in previous meetings, they clashed over Israel-Palestinian talks, a topic that was decidedly secondary at this AIPAC conference.
In the end, it comes down to trust between the leaders in Jerusalem and Washington, with Israeli officials deeply worried about relying on this administration to save them from possible extinction. That may sound overly dramatic, but the steady calls from Iran to wipe Israel off the map even as it speeds up its effort to evade and defy the international community and complete its nuclear program are all too real.
Israeli leaders have shown they are far from trigger-happy. They know all too well the repercussions of an attack on Iran, and they would prefer for Washington to lead, or at least participate, in any military action. But Jerusalem will have to decide when the point of no return on an Iranian bomb is reached.