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Obama shows support for Israel at AIPAC conference

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 3/7/2012, 7:49 a.m.

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference last Sunday, President Obama reaffirmed his support for the Jewish state and stepped up rhetoric against Iran — taking a swing at Republican critics who argue that his efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program have been weak.

“Over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the State of Israel,” Obama said before members of the bi-partisan, pro-Israel lobby in Washington, D.C. “At every critical juncture — at every fork in the road — we have been there for Israel. Every single time.”

And this case would be no different, the president assured the audience. In the past few weeks, Israeli officials have indicated the possibility of a preemptive strike against Iran — aimed at destroying the country’s burgeoning nuclear program.

“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,” he said. “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 that imposes crippling sanctions, and yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

“As I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests,” Obama went on.

At the same time, the president stressed the importance of diplomacy, warning, “Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.”

“Now is not the time for bluster,” he added.

Former U.S. intelligence officials have warned against a military strike against Iran, citing the strategic difficulty it would involve. “The New York Times” has reported that more than 1,000 miles of unfriendly airspace separate Israel and Iran, so aircraft would have to refuel mid-flight before reaching their targets.

“All the pundits who talk about ‘Oh yeah, bomb Iran,’ it ain’t going to be that easy,” Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who recently retired as the Air Force’s top intelligence official, told the Times.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions against Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and in 2011 Obama added new measures to punish Iran for its nuclear program. These measures, Obama said, had the effect of “slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt.”

The Obama Administration has made clear that Iran does not have nuclear weapons—but to ensure Israel’s safety and prevent an “arms race” in the region, it will take steps to prevent the possibility.

The United States also gives approximately $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel each year. “Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every single year,” Obama said.

Speaking just before Obama was Shimon Peres, president of Israel. “Thank you, President Obama, for being such a great friend,” Peres said to open his talk before launching into criticism of Iran, which he called “an evil, morally-corrupt regime,” a “sponsor of world terror,” and “a danger to the whole world.”

The United States and Israel “share the same goal” of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, Peres continued, adding, “there is no space between us.”

Obama and Peres met privately later in the day, and on Monday, Obama hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. Obama also announced that he would award Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom this spring.

While Obama received numerous rounds of applause during his talk, outside the convention hall was a different story. Hundreds of protesters with the group “Occupy AIPAC” gathered as the president’s motorcade drove by, chanting “No war on Iran!” and holding signs calling for peace and images of the Iranian nuclear scientist who was killed earlier this year.

Another group of protesters erected mock checkpoints, settlements and a wall to call attention to the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.