As if their own fraught history and the prospect of a nuclear Iran weren’t enough, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu will bring to their meeting on Monday each nation’s vexing and at times self-contradictory relationship with war.
Obama, facing what could be a tough reelection battle, must reconcile dueling American impulses: to stand up to bullies, and to keep away from protracted bloody involvements overseas.
Netanyahu must reconcile the contradiction that has dogged Israeli leaders since the birth of the Jewish state: the desire for friendship and validation, and the deep-seated belief that Jews can rely only on themselves.
The contradictions were evident both in President Obama’s speech Sunday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and in Netanyahu’s response.
Obama made it clear that Iran and its suspected drive to a nuclear weapon was the villain of this piece.
“No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction,” he said.
The hall was silent, however, when Obama outlined the considerations that keep him insisting on trying all diplomatic options.
“I have a deeply held preference for peace over war,” said Obama, whose victory in the 2008 Democratic primaries had much to do with having been an authentic voice opposing the Iraq War in 2003. “I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I have seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who have come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency. For this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it.”
The tension between a hawkish posture and a reluctance to commit to war played out in the first session of the AIPAC conference, in a foreign policy panel that featured Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who was the longtime top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney who was also a top State Department Middle East official in the Bush administration.
“Everyone in the room understands” that Obama has made statements “more focused on containing Israeli actions than they have been on containing Iran,” Cheney said.
Harman countered that “this administration has done more than any in history to help Israel protect itself,” citing unprecedented levels of defense assistance and close cooperation on missile defense.
She also framed Obama’s efforts to keep Iran from going nuclear against what she depicted as the failed wars of the administration that employed both Cheneys.
“We have paid dearly in treasure and lives, and the results in those countries are very unsettling,” Harman said, referring to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and enduring Cheney’s withering glare. The pro-Iranian tilt of the Iraqi government was “very, very troubling,” Harman added.
But it won’t just be Obama bringing history into Monday morning’s Oval Office meeting. Netanyahu, too, must balance efforts to cajole Obama into a tougher posture with an Israeli tradition of approaching its crises with a sense of- self-sufficiency.
Israeli leaders “still want it to be the world against Iran,” Dennis Ross, who until December was Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said last week in a conference call organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, which now employs him. “But Israel is also a country that obviously always makes its own decisions when it comes to dealing with national security threats, and this is one that is seen as being an existential threat.”
Ross said that such views would be known inside the White House.
“I’ve known every Israeli prime minister for the last 30 years, and the one thing I’ve been struck by in knowing all of them is they’ve always wanted to preserve their own freedom of action because they want Israel in the end to take the steps it needs to take to deal with its national security in the way it defines it,” he said.
Obama made clear in his speech that he got the message.
“I understand the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and all of Israel’s leaders,” he said. At another point, describing his commitment to Israel maintaining its qualitative military edge, Obama said: “Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
That line drew effusive thanks to Obama from Netanyahu. Netanyahu—who was in Canada on a state visit – concluded his statement responding to Obama’s speech by saying: “Perhaps most important of all, I appreciated the fact that he said that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who delivered the speech immediately prior to Obama’s, said afterwards that he was moved more by Obama’s speech than his own.
“I can’t remember a pro-Israel speech like we heard today,” Peres told Israeli reporters. “In depth, in details, he answered all the questions Israel is asking.”
The expressions of gratitude had potential political implications, if unintended. Much of Obama’s speech was pushing back against Republican claims that he has not done enough to defend Israel.
“If during this political season you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts,” Obama said. He also rejected GOP claims that he would be willing to live with a nuclear Iran.
“Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment,” he said to applause. “I have a policy 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 statements come in the wake of a string of strong defenses of Obama’s Israel policies last week from top administration officials as well as from the Obama re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Among those delivering the message in congressional testimony were Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, military chief of staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Jewish chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee spearheaded outreach through op-eds, her own congressional statements and a video that featured Israeli leaders praising Obama.
Ross noted that there still were significant differences, and that it could take the hard work of a meeting to resolve them.
“It was appropriate that those conversations would involve the two leaders,” he said.
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