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AIPAC beats the drums of war

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A barbershop quartet performed for participants in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as they took the convention center escalators to Monday’s meeting of the pro-Israel lobby. But once inside the hall, the AIPAC attendees heard the sound of war drums.

“Iran’s nuclear program continues to march forward,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the crowd of thousands Monday night. “My friends, Israel has waited and waited for the international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

It’s beginning to feel a lot like 2003 in the capital. Nine years ago this month, there was a similar feeling of inevitability — that despite President George W. Bush’s frequent insistence that “war is my last choice,” war in Iraq was coming. Now Israel is moving toward a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program, and American leaders are coming before AIPAC this week to give their blessings.

“The president has said he doesn’t bluff and neither can we in Congress,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a pro-Israel hawk serving his final year in the Senate. “The Iranian regime must hear a message from us and we must state it loud and clear: Either you peacefully negotiate an end to your illicit nuclear activities or they will be ended for you by military attack.”

The lights went up and thousands of conference attendees leapt to their feet.

As always, there are the ritual affirmations of solidarity with the Jewish state, and the usual shows of lobbying might (“largest gala ever!”). But there is little talk about the Palestinian conflict at the AIPAC gathering this year, and the usual domestic political chatter about which side is more pro-Israel has been eclipsed by a shared sense that war is coming — and probably soon. Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, told the crowd that “time is running out quickly.”

Obama, who used his address to warn Iran that he wasn’t bluffing about the possibility of a preemptive strike, repeated his threat while sitting in the Oval Office on Monday with Netanyahu. “My policy here is not going to be one of containment,” he said. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it.” Obama spoke of the standoff with Iran entering “a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.”

Whatever private misgivings Obama may have about a strike on Iran, his rhetoric this week could easily be considered a green light for Israeli action. And if Obama is flashing a green light, Israel’s advocates in Congress are waving a starter’s flag. Mitt Romney, in an op-ed written for Tuesday’s Washington Post, called for expanding aircraft carrier presence in the region.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the AIPAC gathering on Monday night that Obama needs more of a “clear, declaratory policy” toward Iran. “If Iran at any time begins to enrich the uranium to weapons grade or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program.”

That’s not a controversial statement at the AIPAC conference, where attendees admired an armored personnel carrier, a surface-to-air missile and a model of an Israeli drone. To those who oppose military action against Iran, Netanyahu offered a 1944 exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress, which pleaded with the United States to bomb Auschwitz but was rebuffed. “My friends, 2012 is not 1944,” the prime minister said. “Never again will the Jewish people be powerless.”

The question at AIPAC seemed to be less about whether a strike would occur than whether the United States would participate, and when it would happen. Lieberman, calling the Iranian threat “more serious than anything faced by the United States and Israel” during his time in office — a claim that would include al-Qaeda and Iraq — pressed for an “iron-clad” resolution: “The United States will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability — by peaceful means if we can, but with military force if we absolutely must.” The AIPAC participants roared their approval.

Lieberman said that waiting until Iran gets the bomb would be too late: “The despotic regime that now rules Iran must be numbered.”

If the war talk this week is any indication, the days may be numbered in the double digits.

For previous Washington Sketch columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milbank.

Read more about this debate from PostOpinions: Mitt Romney: How I’d stop Iran getting the bomb The Post’s View: Unresolved differences on Iran Jennifer Rubin: Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC

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