Photos by Jaclyn Skurie/Medill
WASHINGTON – It wasn’t exactly what the crowd of 13,000 supporters of Israel wanted, but it was good enough.
President Barack Obama defended his record on Israel Sunday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington. In the keynote speech at the lobbying organization’s best-attended summit in its history, Obama stressed his commitment to Israel’s security and the importance of the bond between the two nations.
“There should not be a shred of doubt,” Obama said. “When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”
In an election year, Obama’s remarks towed the line between appeasing the ardently pro-Israel crowd by citing his record of aid to Israel and trying to convince them that his position favoring diplomacy in the Iran-Israel tensions is not a softening of U.S. support for Israel. He reminded the audience that he stood up for Israel at a United Nations General Assembly and has supported the nation “at every crucial juncture.”
“As you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words,” Obama said. “You can look at my deeds.”
Over the past few weeks, critics in America and Israel have hammered the president on what they call inadequate efforts on his part to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran refuses to recognize Israel and has pledged to eradicate the Jewish state.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that defends the relationship between Israel and the United States, has launched a campaign questioning Obama’s resolve to defend Israel from a nuclear Iran. One ad pictures the president with the words: “He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?” Underneath, a picture of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s top religious leader, charges, “Do they?”
In a foreign policy roundtable at AIPAC before Obama spoke, former California Rep. Jane Harman, a Democrat, urged the president to take more decisive action against Iran because “the clock is ticking.”
Liz Cheney, a former State Department official in the Bush administration and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, went even further to condemn Obama’s record on Israel.
“There is no president who has done more to delegitimize and undermine the state of Israel,” Cheney said. “I predict that when we meet here next year for the policy conference, it will be to celebrate a restored American-Israeli relationship under a brand new American presidency.”
While Obama reiterated his previous claims that he will “take no options off the table” to prevent a nuclear Iran, he warned the audience of the dangers of hasty military action.
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” he said. “Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.
“For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to maintain the broad international coalition we have built,” Obama said.
Though Obama said military action is an option, he made it clear he prefers a path to peace through diplomacy.
“I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it,” he said. “Both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically.”
That may not have been the decisive call to action that most delegates at the AIPAC conference wanted to hear, and the tepid applause Obama received could foreshadow the problems he may face in courting the Jewish vote this November.