8 Observations About AIPAC, Iran, Obama, and Netanyahu

Sorry about not getting to this sooner, but all of this talk-talk-talk takes time to digest. Here are a bunch of observations about the past week, starting with my interview with POTUS and running right up to the present day!

1. Netanyahu won a crucial battle in Washington this past week. No one brought up the Palestinians (including, I should note, yours truly, in my interview with the President, who also didn't mention the Palestinian issue). Netanyahu has quite masterfully shifted the conversation to the subject of Iran. This may be good for Israel in the short-term, but it's bad for Israel in the long.

2. When Obama says he has your back, he has your back in a kind of a general way. In my interview with the President, he was quite specific about "having Israel's back." Clearly, this unequivocal, and yet vague, formula, made someone in the White House a bit nervous, because the president walked this statement back a few days later, suggesting that having Israel's back doesn't mean endorsing an Israeli attack on Iran, but being friends with Israel, the way we are friends with Japan. The walk-back is understandable -- the last thing the White House wants to do is to convey anything looking like a green, or even yellow, light to Netanyahu, and these words, I suppose, could have been misinterpreted. On the other hand, perhaps this walk-back could have been communicated privately, so as not create the impression the President was putting distance between America and Israel. Yossi Klein Halevi has some thoughts on this that are worth reading.

3. There is something quite specific about the AIPAC circus -- 13,000 Israel supporters in a convention center -- that saddens me, and it is this: the AIPAC gathering is now the largest gathering of Jews, as Jews, in America (outside of certain ultra-Orthodox conclaves), and they have gathered not to advance the cause of Judaism, but to advance the cause of a strong Israel-U.S. relationship. I'm for a strong Israel-U.S. relationship (I'm not for it precisely in the same way AIPAC is, which is to say, free of any criticism of any Israeli action), but this was a gathering about mere politics. Imagine 13,000 Jews gathering to discuss, in plenaries and panels and discussion groups, oh, the Torah and its meaning. That would be a good thing, and a lasting thing, too.
4. I try to be careful these days not to be overly critical of AIPAC, mainly because the people who hate AIPAC are not merely hating on AIPAC, but hating on what it stands for, or what they think it stands for (perfidious Jewish power, etc.). Speaking of which, I thought the anti-AIPAC protests outside the Washington Convention Center were fairly pathetic this time around --  mainly a combination of Neturei Karta, the ultraorthodox nutbags who argue that Israel cannot be created until God gives His express written consent, and members of Code Pink. Which gave me an idea: Imagine having the Satmar Hasidim stage a production of The Vagina Monologues outside next year's AIPAC convention. That would be huge.
5. There's been a lot of dumb things said about this issue over the past week, but one paragraph, from Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine, strikes me as the dumbest. This is from a full-page ad in The New York Times, published after President Obama ruled out containment of a nuclear Iran as a policy option:

Some of us believe that Israel could actually work out peaceful relations with Iran and enhance its own security and U.S. security by ending the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, helping the Palestinian people create an economically and politically viable state, taking generous steps to alleviate the humiliation and suffering of Palestinian refugees, and supporting Palestinian membership in the United Nations. Those steps, done with a spirit of openhearted generosity toward the Palestinian people and the people of all the surrounding states, is far more likely than military strikes against Iran or endless assaults on Hamas to provide a safe and secure future for Israel.

The Jewish capacity for self-delusion is one of the natural wonders of the world. I don't believe the leaders of Iran are Nazis, but they certainly do talk like Nazis, and they've oriented their foreign and defense policies around the extermination of the Jewish state. But Michael Lerner thinks the Iranian leadership seeks the removal of settlements in the West Bank. Unbelievable.

6. Re: AIPAC, one reason the group leaves a bad taste in my mouth: This, from their media guide: "Press are to stand in the back of the room and are not invited to ask questions." And also, to go fuck themselves.

7. One of the issues I'm most concerned about is the use of "crippling" sanctions that will hurt innocent Iranians while not altering the behavior of the few guilty Iranians (those in the leadership who are moving forward on the nuclear program). My friend Reuel Gerecht, in an e-mail to me, addresses this problem. It's worth reading his whole letter:

"I am not sure there is perfect symmetry between the prime minister's words and deeds, but (Defense Minister) Ehud Barak appears at least as determined.  Although I don't think President Obama has any intention--at all--to launch a preemptive strike on Iran, his speech at AIPAC did cut new ground re Israel vs Iran. You are definitely right about that. If the Israelis strike, he has to stand in their corner more, not less. The Iranians will guarantee this, I suspect, since Khameneh'i is most unlikely to do the intelligent thing after an Israeli attack and just play dead and aggrieved.) The President will now be even more obliged to use sanctions as a devastating hammer against the country (I am not wild about this: one of the many reasons why I have been in favor of American preemption since 2004 is that it would be much less damaging to ordinary Iranians). An Israeli strike will also make it much, much more difficult for Obama to continue his (disastrous) defense cuts. The Middle East will not let go of us."

I'm not with him on the defense cuts, necessarily (actually, I don't know enough to say one way or the other), but a great deal of what he writes makes sense.

8. On the bluff/not bluff question, I suggest you keep an eye of The Atlantic's new Iran war clock. Dominic Tierney and J.J. Gould have put together a panel of all-star analysts, and Stephen Walt, to weigh in from time to time about the likelihood of war. Please bookmark this, it's important. Right now, the panel puts the chance of an American and/or Israeli strike on Iran over the next year at 48 percent. I lean higher, but 48 percent is still frightening enough.