Ahead of AIPAC Conference, Israeli Pressure on US for Red Lines On Iran Picks Up Steam

With the annual policy convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) coming up in just a few days, many observers are expecting this to be the time when Israel pushes its hardest on the United States to take a more aggressive stance in its ongoing confrontation with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.

With four days to go, it seems that the Israeli push is picking up steam.

Ha’aretz reports today that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to “publicly harden his line against Iran” before he meets with US President Barack Obama on March 5. This is an important piece of timing, as Obama will be speaking at the AIPAC conference on the 4th, the day before Netanyahu meets with him.

To an extent, then, Netanyahu is already making it clear to the AIPAC audience what they should be looking for in the President’s speech, as well as communicating a warning to Obama about what Netanyahu expects from him.

This is only one piece of the gathering pressure. Obama will be walking into something of a lion’s den at AIPAC, much more so than last year, when the President spent weeks after the conference dealing with the political fallout from wide, and often intentional, misinterpretations of his speech and his testy scenes with the Israeli Prime Minister.

Three of the four major Republican candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich–will also be speaking, and it is a sure bet that they will try to outdo each other in painting Obama as weak on Iran. The lone Republican candidate opposed to increased aggression toward Iran, Ron Paul, was not invited.

Other speakers will include key Iran hawks such as Senators Joseph Lieberman and Johnny Isakson, and neoconservative stalwarts Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol. Obama will have some supporters speaking as well, such as Senator Carl Levin, and Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. But the mood in the Washington Convention Center is likely to be heavily pro-war.

It is no coincidence that just this past Monday, reports stated that Israel had made it clear to top US officials that they had no intention of warning the United States if they decided to attack Iran on their own. This news certainly heightened the tension level and increased the pressure on Washington to harden its own stance on Iran lest the Israelis take matters into their own hands.

Netanyahu went on the offensive last week, after General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested Israel ought not attack Iran. Complaints were registered by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to every US official that they could reach, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Vice President Joe Biden. Dempsey backtracked after hearing of Obama’s displeasure at the remarks. But it seems clear he was speaking his mind the first time.

Netanyahu went even further in his meeting with a cadre of US Senators, implying that Obama was trying to “interfere in Israeli politics,” an ironic charge considering the activities of the very group whose conference Netanyahu will be speaking at in a few days.

That view was almost immediately parroted by Senator John McCain, who blamed Obama for the “…daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the [Iranian] threat.” McCain was in such tight lock-step with Netanyahu that the Jerusalem Post reported the following:

McCain sided with Jerusalem in the debate with the US over the time to act against Iran – whether it was only when the Iranians made the political decision to assemble a bomb, as Washington seems to maintain, or before they could fortify all their nuclear installations against military attack, as Israel argues.

“There is no doubt that Iran has so far been undeterred on the path of acquiring nuclear weapons,” McCain said.

That quote could easily have come from Netanyahu himself. So could this one, from Senator Lindsey Graham, who was also at that meeting: “People are giving Israel a lot of advice here lately from America. I just want to tell our Israeli friends that my advice to you is never lose control of your destiny.” Or in other words, ignore what my country, which provides you with enormous financial and diplomatic assistance, often to its own detriment, has to say about a course of action that could deeply affect its interests.

Graham also referred to the present time as a “never again” moment, stoking the flames of Holocaust memory that are so effective at blocking out rational thought, for Jews and often for non-Jews too.

These steps are only the beginning, and the sense that, as Ha’aretz put it, citing officials in both Washington and Jerusalem, that there is “…a serious lack of trust between Israel and the United States with regard to the issue of a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” likely means a good deal of public jockeying is going to happen before the AIPAC conference.

Obama was made to look bad by Netanyahu last year, with far less at stake than there is now. He’ll have to be at least as much on his toes this year, as the wolves will be out for him at the AIPAC conference.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. Obama’s going to sit through a talking-to, right in front of the world press. Again.
    As for the Dempsey back-track, and Obama’s supposed “displeasure”: as I’ve said before, Dempsey drew the short stick, and so had to be the one to make the statement. This allowed Obama to distance himself with it if things got too chilly for his liking.
    I remember a cartoon (possibly by Oliphant), back in the early Nineties or late Eighties, in which a short, pugilistic Yitzhak Shamir stared down a lanky Bush Sr., like a bushy-browed James Cagney. This time round, Obama’s playing Jimmy Stewart to Bibi’s Cagney–complete with Cagney on top of an erupting oil tank, screaming, “Top of the world, Ma!”.

  2. The mob gathers just before the lynching…and ironically a black man tries to stop the mob.

  3. This is the diversionary tactic that israel plays all the time. Notice how the theme of debate has shifted from September: no talk of the catasrophe i.e. Palestinian UN membership anymore. Folks, don’t get fooled. Israel has been a colonial enterprise with the goal of displacing and subjugating the locals. Focus on Palestine. That is how you expose that Biblical atavisitc theocracy in Jerusalem with a phony jest for humanity and modernism. Human rights is Israel’s achilles heel. Western support for Israel is a revelation of how commited the West is to the ideals of civilization. So you kill two birds with one stone.

  4. Somehow I just can’t see Obama standing up before AIPAC and saying, No, we won’t be going to war; and I would suggest instead that we get back to the matter at hand, namely negotiations with the newly united Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.

    But that kind of statement would have the value of putting the crowd off balance. Obama could get off the stage before the crowd recovered enough to take a breath and boo him.

  5. Addendum to the previous comment. So if Obama is clever he will turn the tables around by changing the subject that is bringing up the settlements issue.

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