At AIPAC conference, expect Iran talk on both sides of door

There will be the speeches, and they will resound like an echo. And then there will be the talk.

When President Barack Obama speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday, March 4, and when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the group the following day, expect many of the same catchphrases to carry over: A nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Israel and the United States stand together.

The question is, how much of the comity will extend into the private chat between the two leaders on Monday, March 5? They will meet the same day as Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC’s annual forum, which is expected to attract a record-setting 11,000 to 13,000 activists to the cavernous Washington Convention Center.

Barack Obama

Depending upon who is talking and their political affiliation, the two leaders either are marching in lockstep in their Iran plans, or they are on opposite sides of a significant gap.

“I cannot think of any issue on which we are better coordinated than on the issue of Iran,” U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told the annual meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Feb. 23 in Jerusalem.

But days earlier, after meeting with Netanyahu, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said there was “daylight” between the two nations when it came to confronting Iran.

“There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the threat,” said McCain, who was leading a delegation of GOP senators to the region. “Unfortunately there clearly is some.”

McCain’s assessment followed a warning during a Feb. 19 CNN interview with Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said an Israeli strike would be “destabilizing.” It also comes as the frequency of meetings between top Israeli and U.S. security officials have increased; the White House made a point last week of announcing that talks between Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Netanyahu focused on Iran. This week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is in Washington to see his counterpart, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as Donilon.

McCain had signed onto a nonbinding resolution introduced last week that “strongly supports United States policy to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.”

Benjamin Netanyahu

In fact, there is no such policy. Obama and his predecessors going back to the mid-1990s have sought to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That differs from keeping Iran from achieving the capability to manufacture one, which has been Israel’s red line.

The resolution, which has 35 co-sponsors, is expected to top the agenda of items that AIPAC activists will take with them to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, March 6, the conference’s last day.

The distinction between “acquisition” and “capability” is a critical one to the Netanyahu government, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israel sees “capability” as a point of no return; in its view, an Iran with the ability to put together a weapon within months would be a game changer for the region, Makovsky said. Netanyahu is likely to seek agreement from Obama on a red line that would come prior to Iran actually building a nuclear weapon, he said.

“There needs to be some convergence on the red lines of these two countries so they do not drift apart,” Makovsky said. “The need is to coordinate the clocks. This would reshape the elite policy debate in Israel over whether they should strike.”

“Iran’s attitude should profoundly concern the international community and reinforce the need for maximum economic and diplomatic pressure to stop its nuclear weapons program,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, in a statement.

The Obama administration has led the intensification of sanctions in recent months, squeezing Iran’s economy to the extent that its unit of currency, the rial, has plunged in value.

But touting these sanctions might not be enough for the AIPAC crowd. One session at the conference is titled “Do sanctions work? Preventing a nuclear Iran.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief