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Carefully parsing Obama’s words to AIPAC: What exactly did he promise?

by Shmuel Rosner

March 4, 2012 | 10:14 am

Barack Obama addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C., March 4, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Here’s what President Obama said in his AIPAC speech, and how I think it should be interpreted:

America’s commitment to Israel has endured under Democratic and Republican Presidents, and congressional leaders of both parties.

Don’t use Israel against me in the coming election; don’t make it a political tool. Liz Cheney is wrong, Jane Harman is right (details here).

[A]s President of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the State of Israel. At every crucial juncture – at every fork in the road – we have been there for Israel. Every single time.

Obama is now in trying to erase the memories of past skirmishes with the Israeli government. Settlements? Do not appear in the speech. West Bank – ditto. Obama was with Israel on Goldstone, on Durban, on delegitimazation. He really was, and does deserve to get credit for it.

So 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.

This speech was a bit defensive on Obama’s Israel-support credentials. And don’t forget to vote Obama.

That’s why – just as we encourage Israel to be resolute in the pursuit of peace – we have continued to insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements.

That’s the only mention in this speech of some, well, minor past disagreements between the Obama administration and Israel.

A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States.

There is a difference between “completely counter” and “also counter”. That’s an important differentiation Obama is making.

[W]e would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That is what we have done.

There’s something strange about this line. Not “all elements” were used until now, but Obama says that is “what we have done” in the past tense. If “all elements” Obama can think about were already used, this means that military action has been taken out of the equation.

[O]ur policy of engagement – quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime – allowed us to rally the international community as never before.

We were not naïve, we were smart.

I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy – backed by pressure – to succeed.

Can Obama be clearer?

Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.

Here Obama is using Israel by way of convincing both America’s allies and Iran that he might not be able to hold Israel back forever.

I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power.

But hey, didn’t the President say a minute ago that “all elements of American power” have been already used?

[A] military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

Sorry, but this is a lawyerly way of presenting threat. As the Iranians listen carefully to Obama’s speech their conclusion will probably be this: Obama might let Israel act, but has no intention of acting (militarily) himself.

I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

But I do not say that force is necessary against Iran to defend US interests (See: “also counter”).

[T]here is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil.

Israel should stop hinting at war. If it doesn’t, people might come to the conclusion that rising gas prices are Israel’s fault.

Bottom line: The US and Israel share a goal – stopping Iran. But this is not the speech that will give Netanyahu good enough reason to be cool. In one of the best articles written recently on this topic, Yossi Klein Halevi asked if Israel can “trust the administration to act militarily against Iran.” When “Obama tells Israel to give sanctions time”, he wrote, ”what he is really saying is: Trust me to stop Iran militarily when you no longer can.” His speech today was aimed at giving Israelis good reason to trust him based on past supportive deeds - while promising very little.

Do you agree with the analysis? Join the debate at Rosner’s Domain on Facebook

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