WASHINGTON (AP) — Israel’s prime minister didn’t close ranks with President Barack Obama on how to deal with Iran’s suspect nuclear program, but he can expect a warm reception to his tough talk when he visits Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Benjamin Netanyahu got a preview of what to expect when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told the pro-Israel lobby on Monday that the U.S. should use overwhelming military force against Iran if it learns Tehran has decided to build a nuclear bomb or has started to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level.
“In the weeks and months ahead, Israel and the United States face a day of reckoning,” the Kentucky Republican told the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. “We either do what it takes to preserve the balance of power within the broader Middle East or risk a nuclear arms race across the region that’s almost certain to upend it.”
On Tuesday, three Republican presidential candidates will address the AIPAC gathering, trying to establish their own pro-Israel credibility on the same day 10 states hold primary voting contests. All have said Obama has mishandled Iran.
At the start of their White House meeting Monday morning, Obama and Netanyahu tried to present a united front on the nuclear threat emanating from Iran. The U.S. leader reaffirmed that he would resort to military force, if necessary, to keep Iran from getting a bomb and said the U.S. “always has Israel’s back where Israel’s security is concerned.”
But the two men were unable to plaster over differences on how urgently military force might be needed.
For the second time in two days, Netanyahu ignored Obama’s appeal to give diplomacy and sanctions time to percolate, emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself militarily and suggesting he would not be swayed from going it alone if he thought Israel had to move faster to protect itself.
The very purpose of the Jewish state, he told Obama in a mildly lecturing tone, is “to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny,” he said.
Later in the day, before a record turnout of the pro-Israel lobby, he reasserted Israel’s right to defend itself and said his country had “patiently waited” for diplomacy and sanctions to work.
“None of us can afford to wait much longer,” he told AIPAC. “As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation,” he said to a roaring standing ovation.
Tehran claims its nuclear program is designed chiefly to generate electricity and does not have a military component, but neither the U.S. nor Israel believes that. The head of the U.N. nuclear agency fed concerns further Monday by saying his organization has “serious concerns” that Iran may be hiding secret atomic weapons work.
On Tuesday, a semi-official Iranian news agency reported that the country will grant U.N. inspectors access to a military complex where the nuclear agency suspects secret atomic work has been carried out.
Iran had previously banned U.N. inspectors from visiting the Parchin installation, southeast of Tehran, but a statement by Iran’s permanent envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said the visit will now be allowed in a gesture of good will.
Israel feels especially vulnerable to the Iranian nuclear threat because of Tehran’s repeated references to the Jewish state’s destruction and its arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the Jewish state. And it’s much more openly skeptical than the U.S. about stopping Iran through sanctions and diplomacy because years of talks and penalties have so far failed.
“They’re looking at it through a very different prism than we are,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday.
“So therefore, they have a lower red line than we do,” Rogers said in an interview on CBS’s “This Morning.”
Disagreements between the two allies also run deep over when a strike might be appropriate and how effective a unilateral Israeli attack might be against scattered and heavily fortified Iranian nuclear facilities.
Israel says it has not made a decision on whether to launch an attack. But some Israeli officials say the time to strike is growing short, and say Israel must act by summer if it is to act at all.
The Obama administration sees this course as dangerously premature, arguing that Tehran has not yet decided whether to actually produce atomic weapons and might still respond to non-military pressure. Because of its superior firepower, the U.S. reasons it would be able to act many months after Israel could.
Political considerations have also come into play. A unilateral Israeli strike in the coming months would threaten to ignite the Mideast, drag the U.S. into another conflict and drive up global oil prices just before U.S. presidential elections in November.
Despite the history of tension between them, Obama and Netanyahu tried to downplay their differences Monday.
Obama has little appetite for taking on Israel in an election year. And Netanyahu would have little to gain from sparring with a president whose support might be crucial if Israel decides to act alone against Iran.
But if Netanyahu has not publicly played up differences with the Obama administration over Iran, then Republican supporters in Congress have done that job for him.
Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum will be addressing AIPAC by video in between campaign stops Tuesday. They have all tried to paint Obama as an undependable partner for Israel, and as weak on Iran.
In an opinion piece published in Tuesday’s editions of The Washington Post, Romney said that if he were president, he would combine diplomacy with “a military option” to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He said he would increase military assistance to Israel.
Obama noted the campaign-season rhetoric in his own address to AIPAC on Sunday, and assured conference participants that he was solidly committed to guaranteeing Israel’s security.
In his remarks prepared for the AIPAC speech, released Tuesday by Romney’s campaign, the former Massachusetts governor criticized the administration’s policy, saying “hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and readiness to use it.”
“Of course, the administration’s naïve outreach to Iran gave the ayatollahs exactly what they wanted most. It gave them time,” he said. “Whatever sanctions they may now belatedly impose, Iran has already gained three invaluable years.”
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