Conference hears of Obama's support for Israel


PRESIDENT BARACK Obama will receive Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office today for talks focused on the Iranian nuclear programme, amid speculation that an Israeli military strike against Iran could be imminent.

Mr Obama set the scene for his ninth meeting with the Israeli leader in three years in an address to a 14,000-strong conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday.

“I have Israel’s back,” Mr Obama said, vaunting his own fidelity to Israel and his credentials in thwarting Iranian attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

The US president was loudly applauded when he recognised “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”

While giving priority to diplomatic efforts against Iran, he would not rule out US military action: “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Mr Obama’s speech to the committee was addressed as much to his Republican challengers in the presidential election as to American Jews and Israel.

At a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, last week, frontrunner Mitt Romney said that “keeping Iran from having a nuclear weapon” was his number one foreign policy objective.

“The greatest threat to America is fanatics having nuclear material,” Mr Romney said. “We could be held hostage or worse.”

The Obama administration is reportedly at odds with Mr Netanyahu regarding the timing of an attack on Iran. Israel wants to intervene before Iran obtains the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, while the US would wait until it is on the verge of actually producing warheads.

Nor does Israel agree with Mr Obama’s preference for diplomacy. During a visit to Canada on Friday, Mr Netanyahu called further negotiations with Iran a “trap”.

US Republicans side with Mr Netanyahu against Mr Obama. “The constant repetition that Israel should not take military action communicates that we don’t intend to take military action,” Mr Romney said in Ohio.

“If during this political season you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by facts,” Mr Obama said yesterday. “And remember that the US-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics.”

Just as US social and religious conservatives will never quite trust Mr Romney, a cloud of suspicion hangs over Mr Obama among Jewish hardliners, due mainly to his June 2009 speech in Cairo and his now abandoned efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Mr Obama tried again to dispel those suspicions yesterday, referring to the “unbreakable bonds” and “more than six decades of friendship” between the US and Israel, “the historic homeland of the Jewish people”.

He announced that he will present president Shimon Peres with the presidential medal of freedom this spring, and quoted president Harry Truman’s praise for Israel as “an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilisation”. Actions speak louder than words, Mr Obama said, noting: “Over the last three years . . . I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel.”

The president cited unprecedented military and intelligence co-operation; joint military exercises; an annual increase in security assistance; gifts of ever more sophisticated US technology; US opposition to the Goldstone report that criticised Israel’s killing of 1400 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; US support for Israel after it attacked a flotilla headed for Gaza, killing nine Turkish citizens; the US boycott of the Durban conference; its assistance to Israeli diplomats when their Cairo embassy was overrun. “There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” Mr Obama said.

By focusing on Iran, Mr Netanyahu has deflected pressure for him to make peace with the Palestinians. Mr Obama adopted the Israeli position that upheaval in the Arab world and divisions among Palestinians made this more difficult. “There will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met,” he said.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly last September, Mr Obama opposed UN recognition of a Palestinian state. “No American president has made such a clear statement about our support for Israel at the UN at such a difficult time,” he said. “People usually give those speeches before audiences like this one – not the General Assembly. There wasn’t a lot of applause.”

Mr Obama boasted of having obtained Russian and Chinese support for sanctions which “virtually ground the Iranian economy to a halt in 2011”. US allies in Europe and Asia will join in sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank and oil exports this summer.

“Now is not the time for bluster,” Mr Obama concluded, alluding to Israeli threats of military action. “Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built. Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: ‘Speak softly, but carry a big stick’.”