Sunday, March 4, 2012

AIPAC Opening Plenary Summary: Iran Crossfire

AIPAC's 2012 policy conference began this morning here in Washington D.C.  The opening plenary began with a foreign policy panel moderated by Times Of Israel editor-in-chief David Horovitz featuring Liz Cheney, Arutz 2 commentator Ehud Yaari, and Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman.  Cheney and Harman sparred on President Obama's record throughout the panel, and Cheney ended her remarks by saying that no president had done more to undermine and delegitimize Israel than President Obama.  She predicted next year's conference would be held under a new administration.  Harman retorted that Israel should not be made a partisan issue, to significantly larger applause than that which Cheney received for her original comments.

Cheney's remarks resonated throughout the rest of the (largely scripted) plenary, with speakers posing for an ironic laugh here and there while discussing Israel as a non-partisan issue.  But her comments may fan fears by some that AIPAC is pressuring the administration into war with Iran by questioning the President's commitment to Israel.

Luckily, this appeared not to be the case in the rest of the plenary.  Israeli President Shimon Peres gave a speech largely designed to shape his legacy as president, not to pressure the United States.  He began by thanking President Obama extensively.  Critically, he defined peace as a security interest for Israel.  His corny entrance on stage (walking between rows of children singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) was balanced out by carefully crafted remarks about peace, engagement with the Arab world, and the two-state solution.  Peres demonstrated in this speech why he is a true statesman and a huge asset to the Israeli government.

Ending out the plenary was the much-anticipated speech by President Obama.  In a speech being described as "giving it to them straight," Obama expressed support for Israel on its Iran policy while also cautioning AIPAC delegates to consider the true cost of war.  Given that only a minority of Americans (17% in January) support all-out war with Iran, this was a wise move on the part of the President.  While expressing support for the two-state solution, President Obama was careful to avoid language about the 1967 borders this year, a sign that if contention is to arise between the US and Israel at the conference, it will not be initiated by the Obama administration.

The most important line of Obama's speech was: "Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs."  Analysts should consider the phrase "sovereign right to make its own decisions" very carefully because it may imply the US will respect a decision by Israel to unilaterally strike Iran.

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