Hard on the minds of Detroit Jews planning or contemplating a visit to Israel — for a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, a synagogue mission, an organizational sojourn or personal pleasure — is the No. 1 global question: “Just how serious a danger to the world is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms?”
The danger pulsates. Projections put Iran, the largest state sponsor of terrorism, a few months to a year away from having a nuclear warhead it wouldn’t hesitate to deploy against Israel and threaten the West with.
Against this somber backdrop, President Barack Obama strode to the podium before 13,000 Israel supporters, including 200 Detroiters, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference on Sunday in the nation’s capital and delivered his boldest defense of Israel and warning to Tehran yet.
“Israel’s leaders,” he declared to applause, “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.
“I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power; a political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions; and yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.”
Obama didn’t articulate new U.S. red lines on Iran. But he assured he doesn’t have a policy of “containment,” as Iran’s leaders and some congressional members believe — a policy that would prove feeble if the Islamic Republic is able to actually make an atomic bomb.
“I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.
That staunchness, and Obama’s insistence that Israel must be able to defend itself against any threat, put a smile on the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a Monday press briefing at the White House, Netanyahu said, “If there’s one thing that stands out clearly in the Middle East today, it’s that Israel and America stand together.’’
Still, always wary of Obama’s motives, Netanyahu asserted that Israel has “the sovereign right to make its own decisions.’’
He added, “I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself. After all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state — to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. That’s why my supreme reponsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains master of its fate.’’
The U.S. leader’s strong rhetoric resonated in the pro-Israel crowd that packed the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, but it didn’t shelve his administration’s lingering weak record on support of Israel in regard to settlements, borders and other pivotal Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke just before Obama and said the U.S. and Israel share the same goal: to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. “There is no space between us,” Peres said.
Bolstering that notion, Obama said: “No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction,” Obama said.
A nuclear-armed Iran not only would trigger an arms race in a volatile region and embolden Iranian and Syrian regimes that have brutalized their own people, but also give strength to Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.
Tough talk aside, Obama made it clear that diplomacy, buoyed by increasingly harsh international sanctions, is his top choice for the moment against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerics who control the Persian nation of 74 million people. To little applause, Obama said the U.S. and Israel are vigilant in monitoring Iran’s nuclear edge.
“Few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime,” Obama said. “They have, slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt in 2011.
“Many questioned whether we could hold our coalition together as we moved against Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports. But our friends in Europe and Asia and elsewhere are joining us. And in 2012, the Iranian government faces the prospect of even more crippling sanctions.”
Today, Iran is isolated, divided and under pressure. “And the Arab Spring has only increased these trends as the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is exposed and its ally, the Assad regime, is crumbling,” Obama said.
Yes, Syrian President Bashar Assad is killing Syrians in a last-ditch effort to hold power, but I’m skeptical of just how transformative the so-called revolution known as the Arab Spring ultimately will be in terms of providing a foothold for democracy over totalitarianism.
“Quiet War Cries”
Obama did acknowledge a solid policy on paper isn’t enough: Iran’s capability to go nuclear must be erased. This year’s ramped-up sanctions, including a European ban on Iranian oil imports, will either compel Iranian leaders “to choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead-end,” Obama said.
He spoke pensively about the toll of war for both America and Israel, vowed to use force if necessary to defend the U.S. and its interests, but also proclaimed “there is too much loose talk of war.”
“Over the last few weeks,” he said, “such talk has only benefited the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon 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 sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.’’
Unsaid by Obama was that Israel no doubt will do whatever is required, including an airstrike on Iran’s chief nuclear plants, if the Israeli government deems the danger from Tehran at high alert this year — any impact on the U.S. presidential race notwithstanding.
Detroit delegate Hannan Lis of Farmington Hills, a Haifa native, said he thought Obama clearly assured that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself against a regime threatening its destruction and that he, as president, would use any option to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability.
Lis further said the Obama administration’s specific actions on Iran have elevated “the military, strategic and overall security cooperation between U.S. and Israel to unprecedented levels.”
The Way Forward
In closing, Obama talked about his personal ties to Jews — “from the stories of a great-uncle who helped liberate Buchenwald, to my memories of returning there with Elie Wiesel, from sharing books with Shimon Peres, to sharing seders with my young staff in a tradition that started on the campaign trail and continues in the White House; from the countless friends I know in this room, to the concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world) that has enriched my life.”
Obama then invoked a long-ago predecessor who validated the fledgling Jewish state and gave it needed credibility in 1948, following the Holocaust.
“As Harry Truman understood, Israel’s story is one of hope. We may not agree on every single issue; no two nations do and our democracies contain a vibrant diversity of views. But we agree on the big things, the things that matter.
“And together we are working to build a better world — one where our people can live free from fear, one where peace is founded upon justice, one where our children can know a future that is more hopeful than the present.”
Midway through his 30-minute speech, the president boarded historical perspective and floated the idea that the only way to truly solve the lingering, dire Iranian problem “is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons.”
I’m fearful no amount of international pressure will bring Tehran to its political knees. So if Israel — and America — are left with no option but taking out Iran’s highest-grade uranium enrichment facilities, the question is whether this Obama pledge will ring hollow or echo loudly: “So there should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”