Moments away from US President Barack Obama’s address to AIPAC’s annual policy conference. David Horovitz previews PM Netanyahu’s high-stakes visit here. His lede:
Two tall, quick-witted, dizzyingly self-confident and articulate communicators who are gearing up for reelection battles they think they’ll win, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have much in common. Oh, and they also each believe they know what’s best for Israel. And that the other doesn’t.
Holding pattern. President Obama running late. The conference kicked off with a foreign policy roundtable with Liz Cheney, Ehud Ya’ari, and Jane Harman. The moderator: Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz.
Here’s what they’re discussing: Iran, Iran, Iran. And Iran.
Jane Harman, who served 17 years in Congress as a California Democrat, starts out with a plea that Israel remain a bipartisan issue. “Israel should not be a political football,” she says.
Liz Cheney, former State Department official and daughter of the former VP, taking a hard line on Iran, Syria. “Past time for Assad to go.” On Iran, “President Obama’s interview in the Atlantic is not a policy.” Applause. Also, “Palestinians will never have a state if they have terrorists in their government.”
Cheney says this administration only concerned about “containing Israel.” Harman hits back, “This administration has done more for Israel’s security than any other.” Cites the “unprecedented” military cooperation between the countries. Smattering of applause. One distinct “boo” from the crowd.
Some color: 13,000+ people here, according to organizers. I’m told it’s the largest conference ever. Will upload some photos later of the lines (queues) that snaked around the block this morning.
Cheney: “No president has done more to undermine and delegitimize Israel than President Obama.” Big applause.
Harman: “It’s a grave mistake to turn Israel into a political football. Huge applause.
And with those fireworks, roundtable concluded. Expecting the President any second…
Tribute video honoring the life and times of Shimon Peres playing now.
Peres onstage now. Obama was slated to go first, must be late. Standing ovation for the Israeli president.
Peres: First and foremost, on behalf of my people, “Todah rabba.”
“Thank you President Obama for being such a good friend.”
“The restoration of Jewish statehood after two thousand years in exile – is a historic miracle.
We started as a doubt and wound up as a certainty. We had to fight six wars in six decades.
We did not lose one. We never will.
We can not afford it.We had to defend ourselves. Self-defense is our right and obligation.
With little land, water or resources, Israel grew tenfold in population. Fifty-fold in gross domestic product. Israel’s high-tech and innovation enriches the world its agriculture makes deserts green. Israel built new villages, new cities, new universities, new theatres and cultural centers. Our children are speaking the language of the prophets. Hebrew literature is flourishing. From a dispersed people we became a united democracy.
No day of war ever interrupted a day of Democracy.”
Peres segues to policy. Makes a plea for the pursuit of peace:
“The Middle East is undergoing its greatest storm in history. With horrible bloodshed in Syria, where a tyrant is killing his people, killing children. I admire the courage of the Syrian people. We wish them peace and freedom. In spite of the storm, we have to reach out to the young generation in the Arab world, to those who strive for freedom, democracy and peace. The Palestinians are our neighbors for life. Peace can and must be achieved. A peace based on a two state solution.
A Jewish state – Israel, an Arab state – Palestine.
It was accepted by past and present Israeli Prime ministers and American presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The principle of “The Two State” solution is a paramount Israeli interest.
We want to preserve an Israel that is Jewish, democratic and attractive. I meet from time to time with President Abbas and PM Fayyad. They need and want peace.”
On Iran, Peres says, “If we are forced to fight, trust me, we will prevail.” Full quote:
“A peace that is a dream for both of us [Israel and the Palestinians, is a nightmare for the Ayatollahs in Iran. Iran is an evil, cruel, morally corrupt regime. It is based on destruction. and is an affront to human dignity. Iran is the center. The sponsor. The financer of world terror. Iran is a danger to the entire world. It threatens Berlin as well as Madrid, Delhi as well as Bangkok.
Not just Israel.
Iran’s ambition is to control the Middle East, so it can control a major part of the world’s economy.
It must be stopped.
And it will be stopped.
Israel experienced the horrors of war. It does not seek it. Peace is always our first option,
But, if we are forced to fight, trust me…. We shall prevail.”
Peres introduces our ‘friend in the White House’ — President Obama, who will be speaking shortly.
AIPAC’s chairman of the board, Lee Rosenberg, welcomes back President Barack Obama. Hails him for demonstrating “unshakeable commitment to the unbreakable bonds between the US and Israel.”
Rosenberg, still going, calls Obama’s UN speech last fall a historic demonstration of commitment to the Jewish homeland. Praises him from opposing the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood bid. Commends his decisive action “to help rescue the Israeli hostages” when Israel’s Embassy in Cairo was stormed. Says Obama’s sanctions have left the Iranian regime “more isolated than ever before.” Adds: “We are counting on you” to prevent Iran getting to the bomb.
Obama starts with a couple of jokes, then praises his “outstanding” ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, now “perfecting his Hebrew.” Says he is “very much looking forward to welcoming” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the White House tomorrow.
Now Obama praises the young people in the AIPAC audience, who have the opportunity to make their mark on the world. Moves on to speak warmly of “my friend Shimon Peres” whose heart was always with Israel — the homeland of the Jewish people.
Now this is unexpected. Obama on Peres: “I am grateful for his life’s work and his moral example, and I am proud to announce that later this Spring, I will invite Shimon Peres to the White House to present him with America’s highest civilian honor – the presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Obama quotes Truman: President Truman put it well, describing his decision to formally recognize Israel only minutes after it declared independence: “I had faith in Israel before it was established,” he said. “I believe it has a glorious future before it – as not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.” For over six decades, the American people have kept that faith.
First big ovation: “We are bound to Israel because of the interests that we share – in security for our communities; prosperity for our people; and new frontiers of science that can light the world. But it is our common ideals that provide the true foundation for our relationship. That is why America’s commitment to Israel has endured under Democratic and Republican Presidents, and congressional leaders of both parties. In the United States, our support for Israel is bipartisan, and that is how it should stay.” Lots of clapping!
And now a whole lot more applause for this: “As you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because 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. Four years ago, I stood before you and said that ‘Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable.’ That belief has guided my actions as President.”
Obama details his support: “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 year. We are investing in new capabilities. We’re providing Israel with more advanced technology – the type of products and systems that only go to our closest friends and allies. And make no mistake: we will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge – because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. (Big applause.)
This isn’t just about numbers on a balance sheet. As a Senator, I spoke to Israeli troops on the Lebanese border. I have visited with families who’ve known the terror of rocket fire in Sderot. That’s why, as President, I have provided critical funding to deploy the Iron Dome system that has intercepted rockets that might have hit homes, hospitals, and schools in that town and others. Now our assistance is expanding Israel’s defensive capabilities, so that more Israelis can live free from the fear of rockets and ballistic missiles. Because no family, no citizen, should live in fear.
Cheering now, at the end of this section: When the Goldstone report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When the Durban conference was commemorated, we boycotted it, and we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism.
Obama rolls on: When one-sided resolutions are brought up at the Human Rights Council, we oppose them. When Israeli diplomats feared for their lives in Cairo, we intervened to help save them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to de-legitimize the state of Israel, my Administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.
This is by far the most resonant passage so far: “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.” (Cheering)
Applause, quite strong, for this section: “I make no apologies for pursuing peace. Israel’s own leaders understand the necessity of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, and President Peres – each of them have called for two states, a secure Israel that lives side by side with an independent Palestinian state. I believe that peace is profoundly in Israel’s security interest. The reality that Israel faces – from shifting demographics, to emerging technologies, to an extremely difficult international environment – demands a resolution of this issue. And I believe that peace with the Palestinians is consistent with Israel’s founding values – because of our shared belief in self-determination; and because Israel’s place as a Jewish and democratic state must be protected.”
The president is speaking slowly, passionately, sounding at home. “As hard as it may be, we should not give in to cynicism or despair. The changes taking place in the region make peace more important, not less. And I have made it clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met. That is why we continue to press Arab leaders to reach out to Israel, and will continue to support the peace treaty with Egypt. That’s why – just as we encourage Israel to be resolute in the pursuit of peace – we have continued to insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements. And that is why my Administration has consistently rejected any efforts to short-cut negotiations or impose an agreement on the parties.”
And now we’re coming to the meat: Last September, I stood before the United Nations General Assembly and reaffirmed that any lasting peace must acknowledge the fundamental legitimacy of Israel and its security concerns. I said that America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, our friendship with Israel is enduring, and that Israel must be recognized. No President has made such a clear a statement about our support for Israel at the United Nations at such a difficult time. People usually give those speeches before audiences like this one – not before the General Assembly. And I must say, there wasn’t a lot of applause. But it was the right thing to do. And as a result, today there is no doubt – anywhere in the world – that the United States will insist upon Israel’s security and legitimacy. That will also be true as we continue our efforts to our pursuit of peace. And that will be true when it comes to the issue that is such a focus for all of us today: Iran’s nuclear program – a threat that has the potential to bring together the worst rhetoric about Israel’s destruction with the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Here we go: “Let’s begin with a basic truth that you all understand: no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction. And so I understand the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of Bibi Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak, and all of Israel’s leaders. A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States.” (Sustained applause)
The audience waits to hear the specifics on what the president intends to do, but first he’s giving some background: “Indeed, the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the non-proliferation regime that we have done so much to build. There are risks that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization. It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the most volatile regions in the world. It would embolden a regime that has brutalized its own people, and it would embolden Iran’s proxies, who have carried out terrorist attacks from the Levant to southwest Asia.
That is why, four years ago, I made a commitment to the American people, and said that we would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That is what we have done.” (Mild applause)
The president sets out what he’s done so far: “From my first months in office, we put forward a very clear choice to the Iranian regime: a path that would allow them to rejoin the community of nations if they meet their international obligations, or a path that leads to an escalating series of consequences if they don’t. In fact, our policy of engagement – quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime – allowed us to rally the international community as never before; to expose Iran’s intransigence; and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own. Because of our efforts, Iran is under greater pressure than ever before.”
Obama continues toward the key part of his address: People predicted that Russia and China wouldn’t join us in moving toward pressure. They did, and in 2010 the UN Security Council overwhelmingly supported a comprehensive sanctions effort. Few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime. They have, slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt in 2011. Many questioned whether we could hold our coalition together as we moved against Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports. But our friends in Europe and Asia and elsewhere are joining us. And in 2012, the Iranian government faces the prospect of even more crippling sanctions. That is where we are today. Iran is isolated, its leadership divided and under pressure. And the Arab Spring has only increased these trends, as the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is exposed, and its ally – the Assad regime – is crumbling. Of course, so long as Iran fails to meet its obligations, this problem remains unsolved. The effective implementation of our policy is not enough – we must accomplish our objective.
Here’s the policy thus far: “I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy – backed by pressure – to succeed. The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists. Sanctions are continuing to increase, and this July – thanks to our diplomatic coordination – a European ban on Iranian oil imports will take hold. Faced with these increasingly dire consequences, Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. They can choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end. Given their history, there are of course no guarantees that the Iranian regime will make the right choice. But both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically. After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.”
Obama, from the heart on the cost of war: “As President and Commander-in-Chief, I have a deeply-held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I have seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who have come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency. For this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country.”
Now the key sections: “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 (applause), just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs (standing ovation and lots of applause). 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.” (applause)
Obama speaking very firmly, though without excessive passion: “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.”
Fascinating passage, a kind of “cool the engines” section: “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. (Applause) As we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve, and that our coordination with Israel will continue.”
The big finish: “These are challenging times. But we have been through challenging times before, and the United States and Israel have come through them together. Because of our cooperation, citizens in both our countries have benefited from the bonds that bring us together. I am proud to be one of those people. In the past, I have shared in this forum just why those bonds are so personal for me – from the stories of a great uncle who helped liberate Buchenwald, to my memories of returning there with Elie Wiesel; from sharing books with Shimon Peres, to sharing seders with my young staff in a tradition that started on the campaign trail and continues in the White House; from the countless friends I know in this room, to the concept of tikkun olam that has enriched my life.
“As Harry Truman understood, Israel’s story is one of hope. We may not agree on every single issue – no two nations do, and our democracies contain a vibrant diversity of views. But we agree on the big things – the things that matter. And together, we are working to build a better world – one where our people can live free from fear; one where peace is founded upon justice; one where our children can know a future that is more hopeful than the present.
“There is no shortage of speeches on the friendship between the United States and Israel. But I am also mindful of the proverb, “A man is judged by his deeds, not by his words.” So if you want to know where my heart lies, look no further than what I have done – to stand up for Israel; to secure both of our countries; and to see that the rough waters of our time lead to a peaceful and prosperous shore. Thank you. God bless you. God bless Israel. And God bless the United States of America.”
(Prolonged standing ovation)
Ari Ben Goldberg is the Washington, DC correspondent for the Times of Israel. He is a former AIPAC press secretary.