Obama Courts AIPAC Before Netanyahu Meeting

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

President Barack Obama greets delegates as he arrives on stage to speak during the AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2012 in Washington.

What a difference a year makes. Last year when President Barack Obama stood before the crowd at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, he was on his heels, reeling from a week of miscommunications with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Middle East peace process. That week began with what Washington perceived as Netanyahu lecturing Obama during a joint press availability, followed by a saber-rattling speech by Netanyahu before Congress – so over-the-top that Obama felt he had to respond point-by-point in his speech to AIPAC at the end of the week.

So this year, the President took advantage of the flipped schedule – he spoke first with AIPAC on Sunday before he’s scheduled to meet with Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday – to set the tone and draw some lines. First, Obama rejected any notion that his administration has not been in Israel’s corner. “Over the last three years, as President of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture – at every fork in the road – we have been there for Israel. Every single time,” Obama said to four rounds of applause in this section of his address, including one standing ovation. “The fact is, my Administration’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unprecedented. Our military and intelligence cooperation has never been closer. Our joint exercises and training have never been more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every single year.”

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The President then ticked off the number of ways he has supported Israel in the last year: by standing with them when flotillas of human rights activists tried to run Israel’s blockade of the West Bank; by boycotting the Durbin conference on racism when it defined Zionism as racism; by helping rescue trapped employees in the Israeli embassy under siege in Cairo; and by standing up at the United Nations General Assembly and defending Israel when the Palestinians pushed to be recognized as a state. “So if during this political season you hear some question my Administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics. America’s national security is too important. Israel’s security is too important,” Obama said to a standing ovation.

(Before Obama spoke Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, previewed what will surely be the GOP mantra expected in Monday’s speeches by the Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. “No other President has done more to delegitimize and undermine the Jewish State,” she told the crowd to applause. “Next year, we will be here celebrating the election of a true friend to Israel.”)

But the audience grew quiet when Obama addressed the issue that will dominate these talks: Iran. As he said in an interview earlier this week with The Atlantic Monthly, Obama reiterated that everything, including the use of military force, remains on the table with Iran and that simple containment of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program would not suffice. “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,” Obama said to yet another standing ovation. 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 that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.”

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Still, noting the efficacy and unprecedented nature of the sanctions on Iran, many of which have not yet begun to take effect, Obama chided those who have been pushing for armed conflict. “Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” he said. “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.”

It was clear both the Israelis and the Administration wanted to avoid an embarrassing repeat of last year. Obama was introduced by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who thanked Obama for “being such a good friend.” “My friends the United States and Israel share the same goal: preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. There is no space between us,” Peres said. “Mr. President, I know your commitment to Israel is deep and profound. Under your leadership cooperation between the United States and Israel has reach its highest level. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a friend in the White House that reflects the values that made America great and Israel secure. Thank you, President Obama on behalf of my people. I return home much more hopeful much more encouraged.”

Obama, in thanking Peres, announced that he would award him the nation’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, later this year.

Next up: Netanyahu, who will address AIPAC after meeting with Obama on Monday.

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