Hawk-in-Chief: Obama Courts Israel Supports by Getting Tough on Iran

His Sunday speech to AIPAC was part of a three-part campaign to soothe Israel's leadership, deter Iran's, and keep Republicans from winning over Jewish voters.

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Obama speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington / Reuters

In a rousing election-year speech to the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington, President Obama on Sunday sought to eliminate any remaining daylight between the United States and Israel, especially on the threat from Iran. In so doing he may have succeeded both at firing up Jewish voter support--and at bringing America closer to another war.

Directly confronting the threat from Tehran in a more aggressive way than he ever has before, Obama declared that a nuclear-armed Iran equally violates Israel's interests and "the national security interests of the United States." He tried to remove any remaining doubts about his willingness to use force himself and to green-light, under the right circumstances, Israel's own right to use it, even while urging Israeli leaders to observe a timetable that would delay action until after the U.S. election in November.  Deploying important code words familiar to AIPAC and its supporters, Obama said Iran's leaders  "should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs."

Toward the end of his speech, which drew several standing ovations, Obama also once again addressed perhaps the central doubt in the mind of visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet the president at the White House on Monday: whether America will act militarily if Israel cannot seriously damage or destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities on its own.

Obama delivered something close to the guarantee that Israelis and many American Jewish supporters of Israel were looking for: a pledge that if diplomacy, sanctions and pressure don't work, he will attack Iran's nuclear facilities. "I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power," Obama said. "A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency."

Obama also attempted to clarify that he is not pursuing "a policy of containment." The president said his only interest is "to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon ... And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."

The initial reaction from Israel supporters was positive. "The President said some welcome things today on Iran, including making clear that he has a policy of prevention not containment, explicitly pointing to a military option, delivering an extended explanation of why it is in America's interest to stop Iran, and in particular making explicitly clear that Israel has a sovereign right to defend themselves as they see fit," said Josh Block, AIPAC's former spokesman.

Despite the critical national security issues at stake, Obama's address must be seen largely as a re-election campaign speech. He urged AIPAC (and by extension the U.S. Jewish voters) to ignore GOP slurs on his record "not backed up by the facts," saying that  "the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics. Using a phrase that he first delivered to The Atlantic in an interview published Friday, Obama said "there should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel's back."

But after delivering those more martial pledges, Obama then tried to tamp down what he called "loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program.  For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built." Obama laid out a timetable for obtaining a diplomatic commitment from Iran to negotiate away its nuclear program that seemed to take him well beyond November. "Sanctions are continuing to increase, and this July - thanks to our diplomatic coordination - a European ban on Iranian oil imports will take hold," he said.

The president, who is under regular attack from Republican candidates for supposed weakness in defense of Israel, also sought to put his administration's early missteps behind him. "As you examine my commitment, you don't just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds," he said. "The fact is, my administration's commitment to Israel's security has been unprecedented. Our military and intelligence cooperation has never been closer. Our joint exercises and training have never been more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every year. We are investing in new capabilities. We're providing Israel with more advanced technology - the type of products and systems that only go to our closest friends and allies."

Presented by

Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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