Lee Rosenberg, introducing President Obama, praised his speech this past fall. He praised the rescue of hostages at Israeli embassy in Cairo (reported on in Tablet Magazine by Judith Miller). And he praised the sanctions effort, while adding of Iran, “Its quest to become a nuclear power continues. As you said from this very podium, you will do everything in your power to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and indeed, Mr. President, we are counting on you. Thank you for being a great friend to America’s greatest friend, Israel.”
Obama came out to “Hail to the Chief” and quickly gave special shout-outs to the Chicago delegation; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz; U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro; Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren; the younger attendees; and Prime Minister Netanyahu, in town tomorrow.
In a keen article this morning, Politico’s Glenn Thrush argued that Obama faces relatively low political stakes in this speech. And true to that, controversy was kept to a minimum. Here was his biggest applause line: “Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
And here is the closest he came to messing with comity: “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 upon to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.” He added, “Now is the time to heed the advice of Presidnet Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
Obama noted that the United States challenged the Goldstone Report, supported Israel after the “flotilla incident,” boycotted the reiteration of the Durban conference, “and we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism.” He even made reference to the famous Obama family Seders.
“Whenever an effort has been made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them,” he said. “When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back. Which is why if, during this political season,” and here there was laughter, “you hear some question my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-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.” Massive applause followed.
Here’s news: President Peres will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In something of a humble-brag, he mentioned his speech in support of Israel last September. “People usually give that sort of speech before audiences like this one, not the U.N. General Assembly. And I must say there was not a lot of applause. But it was the right thing to do.” Notably, there was no mention of settlements in this speech. You’ll be nostalgic for the pre-May 2011 speeches if you want Obama to mention settlements again before 2013.
And, last but certainly not least, Iran:
Let’s begin with a basic truth that you all understand: No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction. And so I understand the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and all of Israel’s leaders.
I’d refer you to his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the rest. There was some more humble-bragging: “People predicted that Russia and China wouldn’t join us in moving toward pressure,” he said. “They did, and in 2010 the U.N. Security Council overwhelmingly supported a comprehensive sanctions effort. Few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime. They have, slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt in 2011.”
And there was a genuine case for diplomacy:
Faced with these increasingly dire consequences, Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. They can choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end.
Given their history, there are of course no guarantees that the Iranian regime will make the right choice. But both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically. After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.
For this passage, there was less enthusiasm from the crowd. But there was also no booing, as many were afraid of last year.
Obama’s 2012 AIPAC Test [Politico]
Related: Obama to Iran and Israel: ‘As President of the United States, I Don’t Bluff’ [Atlantic Goldblog]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.