President Barack Obama probably bolstered his strength with U.S. Jewish voters and the Israeli government with his pronouncement that he’ll use military force if needed to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
“The question really is, did he help himself in a way that’s going to last more than a week?” said Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “I’m not so sure of that.”
The confrontation with Iran dominated Obama’s agenda for the past three days as he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and addressed the biggest pro-Israel lobby group. It also has emerged as the top foreign policy issue in the presidential campaign.
Obama won in 2008 with 78 percent of Jewish voters, according to national exit polls. This year the three leading Republican contenders, seeking to undermine that support, accuse Obama of failing to back Israel as he’s argued for more time for sanctions to derail Iran’s ambitions.
Obama challenged his critics at a news conference yesterday, saying they were engaging in “a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk” and exhibited a “casualness” about committing U.S. troops to the battlefield.
Ruling Out Containment
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and has refused to halt its uranium enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-member board called off a scheduled meeting today in Vienna to give Chinese, French, German, Russian, British and U.S. diplomats time to develop a set of demands on Iran, which could come as soon as tomorrow.
Obama’s declaration that he will act militarily if sanctions and pressure don’t work may have bought the president time with Israel and U.S. voters, said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman, Obama supporter, and president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
“The events of the last week have helped the president enormously in a political sense,” Wexler said.
Netanyahu, visiting members of Congress yesterday, said he’ll return home “feeling that we have great friends in Washington.” A day earlier, at a White House meeting with Obama and in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu emphasized areas of agreement while also reserving Israel’s right to act on its own.
Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror said “there’s more clarity now” about the U.S. position, giving Israel a greater comfort level.
Abrams cautioned that goodwill toward Obama at home and abroad may be undercut by Iran’s behavior in a new round of negotiations; Obama’s temptation to use a “nastier” partisan tone with Republican presidential rivals; a history of frosty relations between Obama and Netanyahu, and Israel’s greater sense of urgency about stopping Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The president’s drive to clarify his Iran stance began with an interview published March 2 in the Atlantic magazine. That was followed by Obama’s March 4 speech to Aipac and a March 5 meeting at the White House with Netanyahu.
Yesterday’s news conference, on the same day the Republican candidates competed in nominating contests in 11 states, also coincided with end of the annual Aipac policy conference in Washington.
Urging Stronger Steps
Republican presidential contenders, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, addressed Aipac earlier in the day, accusing Obama of not taking strong enough steps to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
If they think the U.S. should take military action, “they should say so,” Obama said.
“When you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years,” he said without naming his critics. “That’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.”
Obama said the steps he’s taken to isolate Iran, hobble its economy and bring international pressure on the government in Tehran is the right course.
He repeated that the U.S. wants to give ever-tightening sanctions more time to work in the standoff with Iran and there is a “window of opportunity” for a diplomatic solution. He also said the U.S. “will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon.”
Wexler said that approach was reassuring.
“The vast majority of Jewish Americans do not want a chest-thumping president that is creating more anxiety than need be,” he said. “They want to see a sober president with a deliberate plan to stop the Iranian nuclear quest, and that is precisely what President Obama outlined.”
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who also met with Netanyahu last month, said the Israeli leader may have been concerned that the U.S. was moving toward accepting containment of Iran.
“He’ll probably be less concerned about that now,” he said.
Nadler said several constituents from his district told him at the Aipac conference that “they felt reassured” by Obama. “And they should.”
Obama’s Aipac offensive included other officials. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice quoted a biblical passage in Hebrew about brotherhood to a room full of clergy at the Aipac conference before a private question-and-answer session, said Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, a Conservative congregation.
Moline, who is director of public policy for the Rabbinical Assembly, a professional association for Conservative rabbis, said it’s too soon to say how Obama’s effort reassures American Jews and Israelis.
At Aipac, Moline said, the rabbis gave Rice a standing ovation and later sang to her. “When rabbis sing it’s a good thing; when they chant it’s not,” he said.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said that, for now, “the president is holding his own” on Iran and that the verdict “is going to depend on what happens in the next few months.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who met with Netanyahu in Israel last month, said Obama’s “statement about containing a nuclear-armed Iran was good. There will be a lot of bipartisan support for that concept.”
Sanctions are more effective “if the Iranians believe military force could be a reality,” he said.
The timing of any Israeli strike against Iran, Graham said, was largely beyond the president’s control.
“Politically, here’s the problem: I don’t think any prime minister of Israel -- right, left or center -- would let the window close on their ability militarily to author their own destiny,” Graham said.
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