If it seemed, from the tepid reaction given by the activists attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference to Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Sunday, March 2, that Lew, a long-time defender of Israel and veteran of multiple administrations, was speaking a language different from the AIPAC supporters, it’s because, well, he was.
Earlier that day, AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr told a rapt audience that to win his support, a deal with Iran would require the regime to “abandon” its effort to produce a nuclear weapon, would involve their “dismantling” some quantity of its centrifuges, would require that the U.S. and its allies be able to verify that “there is no pathway forward to nuclear weapons capability.”
And Kohr’s preferred way to extract such a deal from the Iranians is, in a word: more pressure.
“Governments, like people, don’t easily embrace change,” Kohr said on Sunday morning. “They’re made to change because change is the only course of action.”
Lew, for his part, emphasized that the US would not agree to any deal without being certain “that Iran could not threaten Israel or any other nation with a nuclear weapon,” but he also acknowledged a reality that Kohr did not: Iran will almost certainly have some kind of nuclear program.
“Before we agree to any comprehensive deal, Iran will have to provide real proof that its nuclear program, whatever it consists of, is and will remain exclusively peaceful,” Lew said to reluctant applause.
Lew was just the first spokesman at the conference for President Barack Obama’s Administration, and when talking about the US’s attempts to make a deal that will ensure Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon, he made the case that existing sanctions have caused deep and continuing harm to the Iranian economy and credited those sanctions with bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table.
Adopting new sanctions legislation, Lew said, could drive the Iranians from the negotiations and break up the international coalition that imposed the current sanctions regime. Moreover, he described the “temporary, targeted and reversible sanctions relief” as “extremely limited,” and rejected any assertion that the six-month deal that began in January had improved Iran’s economic situation anything more than marginally.
The President himself gave a similar explanation of his administration’s Iran strategy in an extended interview published on March 2. Speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View on Feb. 27, the President said that rebuffing AIPAC’s push for more sanctions and increased pressure on Iran, and instead taking time to pursue negotiations, were the right moves to make at this time.
“Even in the old Westerns or gangster movies, right, everyone puts their gun down just for a second,” Obama told Goldberg. “You sit down, you have a conversation; if the conversation doesn’t go well, you leave the room and everybody knows what’s going to happen and everybody gets ready. But you don’t start shooting in the middle of the room during the course of negotiations.”
Goldberg has been Obama’s go-to journalist when it comes to conveying messages to Jewish Americans and Israel supporters; in this case, the President was clearly sending an advance message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is scheduled to be at the White House on Monday.
And the message that Obama delivered to Goldberg – all but certainly aware that his words would be closely read and parsed by not just by Netanyahu but by the audience the Israeli prime minister will address at the AIPAC Policy Conference on Tuesday – is that Netanyahu must seize this moment and make a deal with the Palestinians, or prepare for a situation with the Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs that will eventually become unmanageable.
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Obama told Goldberg.”Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time?”
Obama, Goldberg observed, clearly sees the next move vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as being Netanyahu’s to make.
“If there’s something you know you have to do, even if it's difficult or unpleasant, you might as well just go ahead and do it, because waiting isn’t going to help,” Obama said. “When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”
Secretary of State John Kerry, the member of Obama’s cabinet most directly involved in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, is set to address the AIPAC Policy Conference tomorrow afternoon.