Howard Kohr, the executive director of AIPAC, doesn’t have an easy job. He presides over a mostly Democratic organization in an era in which a Democratic president has frayed U.S.-Israel relations to the breaking point, lurching from one spat to another with our democratic ally. Those on the right (including me) have chided AIPAC at times for not confronting the president more strongly when his rhetoric and policy choices do damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship. On the left, he must contend with rising anti-Zionism and the reflexive use of anti-Semitic language in the New Media.
So in analyzing his speech it is important to appreciate his institutional limitations and the degree to which AIPAC’s ethos has for decades been to cultivate bipartisan support for Israel. (That works when the president is staunchly pro-Israel, but not so well under this president.)
Certainly those on the right will wince when they hear Kohr’s speech to the AIPAC conference this morning: “President Obama and his administration are to be commended. They have — more than any other administration — more than any other country — brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions.” Nothing about the administration’s opposition to the Menendez-Kirk sanctions amendment? Nothing about his preposterous directive to can the “loose war talk”?
Again, Kohr is trying to walk a fine line. So when he says in his closing, “We must recoil from any inclination to make this situation — or allow others to make this about parties or politics” we should keep in mind that the rest of the speech was a serious and smart repudiation of the president’ approach to Iran.
Consider that the president repeatedly said that the redline (not his word, but mine) was Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon. Kohr said this:
It is not necessary for Iran to actually have the bomb –to demonstrate beyond doubt that they have crossed the nuclear threshold. Iran with simply the capacity to quickly produce a weapon – is a risk to peace, and a threat to the world. Iran, as a threshold nuclear state will strengthen our foes and frighten our friends. . . . That is why all U.S. officials must speak with one voice – so Tehran clearly hears that America is unified in its determination to prevent a nuclear capable Iran.
In other words, Mr. President you are dead wrong.
Kohr also made the case that Obama is wrong on his timeline. Obama said there was time for diplomacy to work. But he said we are now in an urgent situation: “There is still time to stop Iran without the use of force. But that time is running out — quickly.”
Obama is at pains both publicly and privately to urge the Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyhu to hold off on military action. The U.S. can handle this if sanctions fail, he is saying. But Kohr explains why that formula is unworkable for the Jewish state:
Israel was created to ensure that the Jewish people would never have to put their fate in the hands of others. Let us be clear: Israel does not want Iran to force her to have to strike. For twenty years, Israel has sounded the alarm about the dangers of Iran becoming a nuclear power in an attempt to avoid military confrontation by anyone. Israel has never treated force as the first resort. It has always been – and still is – the last resort. But Israel does not control the path Iran is on. If at some point, Israel -- or anyone -- must act – only Iran will be to blame.But if Israel is forced into taking military action that she and the world did their best to avoid, then America must stand with the Jewish state.
In other words, the deadline for Israel to act is when its military capabilities reach their limit to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capacity. Kohr was candid about that gap between the U.S. and Israel: that “Israel’s place in Iran’s ideology; its size; Its proximity to danger — all these — create a disequilibrium — a divergence about when Iran’s actions present a critical danger — say to the United States or the west — and when they pose a critical danger to Israel.”
Kohr also did what Obama failed to do: Lay out the necessary conditions on negotiations to prevent them from becoming a stalling tactic for Iran to continue its march toward a nuclear weapons capability. “But for any diplomacy to succeed, Iran’s leaders must demonstrate in advance that they are serious about giving up their quest for nuclear weapons. We should demand that they again verifiably freeze their nuclear program, as required by the UN Security Council – before talks begin.”
And finally, Howard debunked the president’s call to muzzle the “loose war talk.” In fact, we have to raise the fear factor, he argued: “When American soldiers entered Iraq in 2003 and Tehran feared it would be next, Iran stopped work on developing a nuclear weapon. But — when the mullah’s fear diminished, Iran’s nuclear scientists returned to business as usual — and have been at it ever since. The reality today is that the Iranian regime is not frightened enough.We must increase the pressures on the mullahs to the point where they fear failure to comply will lead to their downfall.”
It would be wrong to paint Kohr’s speech as “taking Israel’s side.” To the contrary, he is making an appeal not only to his members and the American people but to the president and those with in the administration struggling to formulate a more robust Iran policy and more closely align U.S. and Israel interests. He is making the case that, for America’s security, we need to move up that redline. (“A nuclear capable Iran means real risks for the United States, her friends and allies.”)
Given the political composition of his membership and his need to remain above partisan politics, it was an extraordinary and in many ways devastating speech. Let’s hope someone in the White House is listening.
UPDATE (2:30 p.m.): Apparently, Kohr’s speech was a tad too candid for the administration or maybe for its spinners on the AIPAC board. So the usually demure organization responded directly, and on its own initiative, to Right Turn about the above report with a sort of nondenial-denial (We really didn’t mean to, point by point, shred the president’s speech!), which only underscores the real divide between the administration and many friends of Israel:
As AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr noted in his speech, significant steps taken by this President and Congress have led to important progress on the Iran issue. He also noted that the President and the Administration should be commended for doing more than any other country to put pressure on Tehran. While noting this American-led progress to date, the Kohr speech urged all parties, including the Administration, Congress, the international community, and even AIPAC activists to do more to solve the Iranian challenge. Every party has a responsibility to bring more pressure to bear on the Iranian regime. AIPAC welcomed the President’s remarks on Sunday, and his firm commitment that all options are on the table — diplomatic, political, economic, and military — to prevent a nuclear Iran.