Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama was “good,” said a source who’d been briefed on the matter. Not great, but not awful. In essence they agreed on lowest common denominators and left the rest vague. The two leaders agreed: Iran should not be permitted to get the bomb; all options should be on the table; containment of a nuclear-armed Iran is not in the cards; and Israel is a sovereign nation that will act in its best interests.
But there is no indication “redlines” were discussed. Netanyahu told Obama he was pleased with the recognition that Iran is an international threat, while Obama tried to make the case there is time for diplomacy to work. And that was that — well, until the evening, when things got more interesting at another AIPAC policy conference session. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made quite a splash, followed by a rousing and emotional stemwinder of a speech by Netanyahu.
McConnell in his remarks insisted that Obama’s policy was failing to halt Iran’s nuclear program because we had failed to make the military option credible. He declared: “Now the administration has attempted to rely on the ambiguity of its military policy by claiming at every stage that it continues to keep ‘all options on the table.’ But this is not a policy. It’s a talking point. . . .What is needed when it comes to Iran is the one thing the administration hasn’t provided, and that’s a clear, declaratory policy that states what we will do and why.” He then offered up his own redlines and described how Congress might try to force Obama’s hand:
All that’s been lacking until now is a clear, declaratory policy. And if the administration is reluctant for some reason to articulate it, then Congress will attempt to do it for him.
So tonight I make the following commitment in support of the policy I have proposed: if at any time the intelligence community presents the Congress with an assessment that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon — consistent with protecting classified sources and methods — I will consult with the President and joint congressional leadership and introduce before the Senate an authorization for the use of military force.
This authorization, if enacted, will ensure the nation and the world that our leaders are united in confronting Iran, and will undermine the perception that the U.S. is wounded or retreating from global responsibilities.
McConnell’s strong and meaty policy statement was greeted enthusiastically by the AIPAC crowd. But that was only the warm-up for the main event.
One can’t overstate the power of Netanyahu’s words and the wild enthusiasm of the crowd, which repeatedly rose to its feet to cheer the prime minister. After the initial thunderous welcome, he cracked, “Just like the Knesset.”
He had two main themes: Let’s not kid ourselves about Iran, and Israel will never place its fate in the hands of others. As for Iran, he used this formulation to explain that there should be no doubt what Iran was up to: “A country that builds underground nuclear facilities, develops intercontinental ballistic missiles, manufactures thousands of centrifuges, and that absorbs crippling sanctions, is doing all that in order to advance…medical research. . . .Ladies and gentlemen, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? That’s right, it’s a duck. But this duck is a nuclear duck. And it’s time the world started calling a duck a duck.”
He went on to make the case that both diplomacy and sanctions have essentially failed: “For the last decade, the international community has tried diplomacy. It hasn’t worked. For six years, the international community has applied sanctions. That hasn’t worked either. I appreciate President Obama’s recent efforts to impose even tougher sanctions against Iran. These sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, but unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward.”
But the bulk of his speech was spent making it crystal clear why Israel will act ( Netanyahu said he never says what he will do or when) if needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program: “As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.” He then explained (recall that Netanyahu often uses documents as props in his speeches:
In my desk, I have copies of an exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress and the United States War Department.
Here are the letters:
The year was 1944. The World Jewish Congress implored the American government to bomb Auschwitz. The reply came five days later. I want to read it to you.
Such an operation could be executed only by diverting considerable air support essential to the success of our forces elsewhere…and in any case, it would be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources…
And, my friends, here’s the most remarkable sentence of all, and I quote:
Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.
Think about that — “even more vindictive action” — than the Holocaust.
He then in a booming voice recited these points, each interrupted by a huge ovation:.
Today we have a state of our own. And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future.
Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again.
That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.
We deeply appreciate the great alliance between our two countries. But when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.
Neither Netanyahu nor the crowd was cheering about the prospect of war. Both understand how much damage and death may result from a military strike (although Netanyahu argued, “There’s been plenty of talk recently about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time we started talking about the costs of not stopping Iran.”) Rather, Netanyahu was reaffirming that the Jewish state will not be destroyed on his watch and the Jewish people will not be passive victims ever again. (“In every generation, there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people. In this generation, we are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people.”)
This is the essence of Zionism — namely that Jews are not sheep that can be herded off or bombed out of existence, but possessors of a vibrant state that can defend the Jewish people — that Netanyahu vividly expressed. And for 13,000 people in the audience and Israel’s friends around the world it was a powerful message spoken boldly that will not be easily forgotten.
And, by the way, it also was a tour de force example of “making a military threat credible.” It was not, as Obama put it, “loose talk of war,” but rather deadly serious and determined rhetoric. Definitive statements backed up by action is what is required if Iran’s nuclear program is to be squashed. And in listening to both Obama and Netanyahu over the last couple of days I have no doubt who will act if needed.