Decrying “loose talk of war” that only helps Iran’s ruling mullahs, President Barack Obama promised a powerful Jewish group Sunday that he has Israel’s back and vowed – again – to keep the Islamic regime in Tehran from adding nuclear warheads to it arsenal.
Ahead of what are expected to be tough talks Monday with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the American President delivered an unambiguously pro-Israeli speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee.
“There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” Mr. Obama said to thunderous applause.
In Ottawa on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu voiced approval of Mr. Obama’s conciliatory speech to AIPAC. “I appreciate all of these statements and expect to discuss them tomorrow with President Obama,” the Israeli leader said. He too will address AIPAC later this week.
Mr. Netanyahu had met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday, and wrapped up his brief visit to Canada with a meeting with Liberal Leader Bob Rae before leaving for Washington.
Mr. Obama, widely regarded by many Israelis as the least-supportive American president in decades, made repeated efforts to establish that he was, and would remain, a loyal ally and reliable friend.
“Over the last three years, as 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,” Mr. Obama said.
There was no mention of testy spats with Mr. Netanyahu nor unwelcome demands for an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, nor the controversial call Mr. Obama made last spring for Palestine’s boundaries to be drawn “based on 1967 lines with mutually-agreed swaps.”
Those – plus Mr. Obama’s considerable outreach to the Arab world, the evidently chilly relationship with Mr. Netanyahu and the President’s pointed omission of Israel from his foreign visit list – had provided fodder for his political opponents.
Republican front runner Mitt Romney, for instance, said Mr. Obama “threw Israel under the bus” and “emboldened Palestinian hardliners.” Newt Gingrich vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem if he becomes president. And Rick Santorum says Mr. Obama has “betrayed Israel at almost every turn,” most recently, according to the Tea Party favourite, by disclosing Israeli plans to attack Iran.
“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,” Mr. Obama said in his speech to AIPAC, widely regarded along with the National Rifle Association as the most influential lobby group in Washington.
Shoring up his pro-Israeli stance is important in an election year. While a majority of Jewish Americans usually vote Democrat, any fall-off in turnout or shift to the Republicans could be vital in key swing states, notably Florida.
Without naming then, the President also decried his Republican rivals and Israeli hawks beating the drums of war for pre-emptive attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” he said, adding, “such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil.”
Instead, he said, “now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
Only days earlier Mr. Obama made his most explicit public comments about using military force, if needed, to keep Tehran’s mullahs out of the nuclear-weapons’ club. “As President of the United States, I don’t bluff,” he said, adding that “both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
But previous presidents, both Democrat and Republican, made similar threats about North Korea yet failed to take military action while Pyongyang defiantly built and tested a nuclear device.
Israel, which has its own, undeclared, nuclear weapons, has backed up its threats to deny them to others in the region. Israel warplanes attacked and destroyed nuclear sites in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.
But an Israeli attack against the widely dispersed and deeply buried Iranian nuclear sites would likely take weeks and might not be militarily achievable without at least tacit U.S. support given the distances and difficulties of a full-blown bombing campaign.
Determining just where the ‘red lines’ are drawn that would trigger Israeli or American attacks on Iran’s murky and controversial nuclear program is expected to dominated Monday’s talks between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.
The two have sparred publicly and privately.
It will be their first meeting since November when Mr. Obama was caught caustically complaining about the Israeli leader. After French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: ‘Netanyahu, I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” Mr. Obama, unaware his comments were picked up by media microphones, replied: “you are sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day.”