Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta didn’t have much new to say, and moreover what he had to say didn’t really matter. What was important was his presence up on the podium: a continued reassurance of the U.S.-Israel military bond, as well as a fairly subtle (and then less subtle) reminder that President Obama has indeed continued if not, arguably, strengthened that bond. So, the speech was relatively milquetoast, but it was a nice reminder that for all the very real difference over Iran strategy, it is inconceivable that the deep U.S.-Israel relationship is in any sort of jeopardy. Not coincidentally, this is also the reason why AIPAC holds this massive conference every year. Panetta built his way up. He is not a great speaker, but by the end he had the audience on its feet.
Toward the end, there was some Iran talk, as though the Obama Administration wanted the last word in after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bombastic, virtuosic address last night. “We do not have a policy of containment,” Panetta said to applause. “We have a policy of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” He did cite the continued potential of diplomacy but in the same sentence emphasized that the military option, specifically, remains on the table. “What we learned at Yad Vashem convinced all good people to make sure that what happens before never happens again,” he added.
“In this town, it’s easy to talk tough. Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important,” he remarked and proceeded to run through the president’s tough deeds: the Afghanistan surge; precision bombing in Libya; ordering U.S. warships to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. “And he has been the driving force in the most successful counterterrorism campaign in U.S. history,” Panetta added, culminatining in the Osama Bin Laden raid.
Panetta said he is the first Secretary of Defense to address the AIPAC Policy Conference in more than 20 years. Interestingly, this would imply that the last one was in the George H.W. Bush Administration, which is to say, the last administration that had relations with the Israelis at least as fraught as the current one. So, perhaps you send in SecDef for reassurance, because the military cooperation is what stays constant. You can lull a skeptical audience into an appreciative stupor with references to the amazingness of the F-35 airplane, which Israel will be the only country in the region to receive.
“Our commitment is to maintain and expand Israel’s qualitative military edge,” Panetta said, invoking a key catchphrase. “This is an ironclad pledge, which says the United States will provide whatever support is necessary so that Israel can maintain military superiority over any state or coalition of states, as well as nonstate actors.” He added, “We have no better ally in this critical region of the world.”
There were some good stories. As a congressman, Panetta, as is common, shared a house with other congressmen. “If you’ve seen the movie Animal House, you’ll have some idea of what that was like,” he said. One of his roommates was Chuck Schumer, of New York, now the third-ranked Democratic senator. “We slept in the bottom of that house, living room area,” Panetta recalled, “and every night, before we went to sleep, he made me say the Shema. I made him say the Hail Mary.” Hope that doesn’t get Schumer in trouble with some of his Brooklyn constituents!
Panetta remembered visiting Israel in August 1991, at the time of Soviet aliyah and after the first Gulf War. “Coming just months after Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles,” he said, “the visit also underscored the complex security threats facing Israel by virtue of geography, by virtue of politics, and by virtue of history.” He also thought back to the White House lawn handshake as well as to Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral (he was President Clinton’s chief-of-staff at the time), conjuring, perhaps, “Shalom, haver,” that great moment of Israeli-American understanding and sympathy.
Moving on through his eminence grise career, Panetta cited his recent time as director of the CIA. “I saw the benefits from close intelligence relationship from our governments at the very highest levels,” he said, and added that after the successful raid on Osama Bin Laden, which Panetta oversaw, “the first congratulations I got were from my buddies in Mossad.”
Of his relationship with Defense Minister Barak: “We talk, we argue, we eat, we are family.”
Think of James Caan as Sonny, or De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America: Jews can play Italians, Italians can play Jews.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.