Iran row erupts as Netanyahu goes to Washington

The scale of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference in Washington DC is truly mind boggling and a little intimidating. Some 16,000 Jewish activists, Christian and minority supporters of Israel from every corner of the United States, gathered under one roof at Washington’s cavernous Convention Centre. The atmosphere is business-like and professional with delegates, men and women, suited and smart, with large credentials hanging around their necks and armed with notebooks, pens and mobile devices.

In the plenaries, breakout sessions and in the “Aipac Village”- with its vast kosher food halls and cafes – the enthusiasm for Israel’s cause is unalloyed. One has to travel a few blocks away to “J Street,” which will hold its own conference with 3,000 delegates later this month to hear dissenting voices.

This year’s Aipac meeting has been dominated by one subject: Iran. It was propelled to the top of the agenda by the now notorious invite by the Republican House Speaker John Boehner to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Early protests about the speech to Congress, delivered on March 2 (the final day of the Aipac meeting) centred on protocol. The Republican leadership in Congress has been accused of series breaches of the normal diplomatic order. By inviting the Israeli PM two weeks before the Jewish state goes to the polls Congress looks to be interfering in the country’s domestic politics.

One senior diplomat I spoke to in Washington asked me to imagine the anger in the Labour Party and Britain were David Cameron to have accepted an invitation to speak to Congress just two weeks before the May 7 election. It was precisely because of this that Cameron had been invited to go in January 2015 – well before Britons go to the polls.

The bigger breach of protocol was the failure to of both Congress and Jerusalem to properly inform and consult with the White House or State Department ahead of the disclosure of the address.

The diplomatic niceties now seem minor league. The issue has become one of substance with a huge divide on Iran’s nuclear ambition. Netanyahu received a rock star welcome when he addressed Aipac and vowed to make Iran the centrepiece of his speech to Congress. This despite strong reservations among some leading Democrats such as California Senator Diane Feinstein.

Netanyahu insisted he had no intention of  “disrespecting” the President and praised him for the security assistance provided to Israel. But on Iran the US and Israel are on a collision course stirred up by the Netanyahu speech.

Israel is insistent that any deal with Iran to freeze nuclear development will be inadequate and that Iran poses not just an existential threat to Israel, but is responsible for exporting terrorism – through its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihad – around the world.

Indeed, Netanyahu brought a chart with him from Israel showing the tentacles of Iranian terror reaching into five continents.

Obama insists that the agreement being drawn up by the five plus one (the US Security Council nations – the US, Russia, Britain, China, France plus Germany) will be robust and backed by intrusive inspections. The talks will establish a so called “breakout period” of a year.

Should Iran renege on any of its commitments on creating weapon quality centrifuges (in that period) then the US would reserve the right to renew sanctions and if necessary use military force to take them out. The President’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice was insistent at Aipac that if a 10 year deal halting nuclear development could be obtained then it would be better than a military strike. That would eliminate facilities but not the nuclear know-how.

Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog, who is at Aipac, briefed the British delegation (of which the Board of Deputies is part) that the US has the capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, as does Israel.

Both countries have rehearsed the military option.

Even among the US government speakers at Aipac there were differences of nuance. Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, made it clear that the US government stood ready to use military action “period” to destroy nuclear capabilities should the outline agreement be breached by Iran.

Rice, who is close to the President, argues that the dispute is “destructive”  to Israel-American relations. Obama argues that none of Israel’s warnings about Iran developing weapons under the cover of the negotiations have turned out to be true. He argued that an agreement on limiting nuclear quality centrifuges and the production of plutonium would be more effective than a military strike.

Clearly, there has been a serious breach in relations, headlined by cable network CNN as “a crisis”.  But Aipac delegates mainly appear to be on the side of Netanyahu and his insistence that all nuclear facilities be eliminated.

The fear must be that the enthusiasm of Obama and his Secretary of State for a deal will cause a major rift which will impact on longer-term relations between the two nations.

The current US Administration reminded Aipac delegates that its commitment to Israel is unbreakable. It pointed to £20 billion of security assistance since coming to office; the promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region with the supply of fifth generation of F15 jets and co-operation on Iron Dome and other anti-ballistic missile systems.

The dispute over Iran may not interrupt any of that. But it spells out what is really at stake should the Israel-US alliance be weakened.

Board vice-president Alex Brummer was accompanied at Aipac by chief executive Gillian Merron and deputy-chair of the International Division Edwin Shuker

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