On Sunday morning, President Obama will speak at the national AIPAC conference. Given that it is a presidential election year and a critical time in the Mideast, it’s not surprising that there would be a big turnout. But even AIPAC officials are somewhat slack-jawed that 14,000 attendees have signed up (the usual crowd is 8,000-9,000) for the three-day event. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Obama at the White House on Monday and speak to the AIPAC crowd Monday night (no dinner this year since tables simply can’t be set up for so many attendees). On Tuesday, which of course is Super Tuesday, three of the four GOP presidential contenders will speak via video or satellite.
So what is Obama going to say and what does he need to say? It is easier, I think, to anticipate what he is not going to spend much time discussing in public. The “peace process” is dead, so expect a couple of lines at most. To put it mildly this has not been a success for him, and the less said the better. Syria is in turmoil, but Obama has no policy there, so expect him to slide by that topic. Egypt’s turmoil is creating grave uncertainty in the region, causing Israel to reassess its security assumptions and devote more resources for securing its southern border that now abuts a Yemen-like no man’s land where the Egyptians exercise little control. Obama has no viable policy there either, so expect minimal discussion of Egypt.
The president’s speech, everyone expects, will therefore be almost entirely about Iran.
Obama has two interests: keeping up the appearance that sanctions are actually working and demonstrating to American pro-Israel voters (i.e. the vast majority of Americans) that the United States and Israel are not at odds over Iran.
The latter is a bit tricky given the public back-and-forth over whether the U.S. will guarantee military action if sanctions fail (no), whether Israel will give a heads-up to the U.S. before acting (no) and whether Israelis can entrust the survival of the Jewish state to any government other than its own (that’s complicated, as I discuss below). No doubt the administration would rather not hear a lot in public about who is going to act militarily and at what point. Remember the Obama administration script: S anctions are working. Israel can hold off. There is time for Iran to change course.
Many consider all that to be delusional and dangerous, ignoring evidence (e.g., progress at Iran’s Fordo nuclear site and its decision to exclude IAEA inspectors) and in effect forcing Israel to act on its own behalf. But since this is the Obama gambit, it is not so hard to predict what he’ll say.
He’s likely to be big on platitudes, waxing on about the nations’ long-term relationship and the enhanced military and intelligence cooperation. He’ll pat himself on the back for increasing overall aid to Israel. He’s likely to talk about his “smart” diplomacy in lining up E.U. support for tougher sanctions, and maybe even grab credit for the recent U.S. sanctions, which his administration opposed for a time.
But I would expect few specifics or definitive promises of U.S. action in the event sanctions don’t work. I don’t imagine he’s suddenly going to adopt regime change as U.S. policy. He will certainly not rule out more diplomatic outreach, although certainly there are some within the administration who find it unpalatable to sit down with Iranian representatives without concrete and verifiable steps to halt its nuclear weapons program and to allow in inspectors.
It is fair to say that Obama will aim to make as little news as possible over the next few days. He wants no confrontation with Netanyahu. He wants no awkward press conferences. And he certainly doesn’t want to underline the real divide between the U.S. and Israel on the efficacy of sanctions.
Behind all of the speechmaking is the likelihood that the countries assess differently whether sanctions are “working” and when Israel concludes it can delay no longer before taking action militarily. The two countries may share intelligence but not agree on what it means.
Israel’s need to act on its on behalf is an even knottier matter. Given Israel’s capabilities, proximity and history there will be a point beyond which the Jewish state will not be able to act successfully on its own behalf and therefore will not refrain from acting to destroy or delay Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. The U.S., as experts privately and publicly attest, has greater military capabilities and therefore greater willingness to wait, allow other measures to run their course and accept the risk that our intelligence assessment might be wrong.
So there will very likely be (or already is) a gap between what Israel thinks is going on in Iran and the significance of those developments, and what the administration sees and concludes is going on in Iran. Israel may conclude at some point it has reached its “redline”; the U.S. may assure Israel there is still time and that the U.S. will take care of matters if need be. But what Israeli prime minister, even with a trusted U.S. president, would leave its very existence in the hand of others? That, after all, was the lesson of the Holocaust and the underlying rationale of the Jewish state: Never again would Jews rely on others to protect them from extermination.
While this minuet is going on, Iran moves ahead with its weapons program. The Iranian regime bolsters Bashar al-Assad and supplies Hamas and Hezbollah. Even should Obama succumb to the Israelis’ pleas to sound serious about a military option, the mullahs have every reason to doubt his stick-to-itiveness. After all, Obama bugged out of Iraq, is fleeing Afghanistan and won’t lift a finger to aid the Syrian people.
Obama may try out some tougher rhetoric on Sunday, but there is an underlying reality: Israel is fast approaching its point of no return and there is as yet little evidence that the Iranian regime is going to cry uncle (i.e. give up its program) or collapse before Israel (and maybe even the U.S.) concludes there is no more time to wait.