Aipac: Barack Obama firm for Israel, firm on Iran

President Obama at Aipac conference. 4 March 2012 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Obama won a standing ovation from the Aipac conference in Washington

President Obama could have been in no doubt as to what would go down well in the darkened, cavernous hall in Washington where the American Israel Public Affairs Committee held its huge annual meeting.

Strong, firm support for Israel; strong, firm words on Iran.

But he had multiple audiences - Israel's leaders; independents who worry that he is not tough enough; Democrats who worry he is too tough; allies worried about Israel's intentions; Iran itself.

Earlier, Liz Cheney had said Obama had done more than any president in history to "undermine and delegitimise" Israel.

He had already warned that Republicans would attempt to drive a wedge between him and the Jewish vote and told this conference that he had Israel's back and "remember that the US-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics. America's national security is too important. Israel's security is too important".

Frankly, that's the easy bit.

This is the largest conference in Aipac's history. Organisers say a staggering 13,000 people will take part and "celebrate the shared values and shared vision of Israel and America".

There is no doubt that Iran is right at the top of their agenda.

The very first speaker says "Iran is marching towards the bomb". The press pack has a colour sheet showing a missile and the looming faces of Iran's leaders. The text reads: "Iranian nuclear weapons capacity: Unacceptable."

The president went a long way to telling the audience that he agreed. He said he would use "all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon".

But he said there had been too much bluster, too much loose talk of war. That could be seen as a rebuke to the Israeli government, which has not discouraged growing speculation that it plans a military strike against Iran this year.

The president said diplomacy could succeed in persuading Iran to give up its programme. But he had a warning too.

'Military contingency'

He stressed that Israel had a sovereign right to make its own decisions about security and added: "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 programme is monitored; an economic effort to impose crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

"I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."

He got a standing ovation, and everybody I could see joined in. Those I spoke to afterwards had a remarkably similar view.

They liked what he said, but most wondered when words would be turned into action.

When Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White house on Monday we will find out how the speech has gone down with the government of Israel.

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