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AIPAC 2012: ‘I have Israel’s back,’ Obama insists

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President Barack Obama addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, March 4, 2012. (Carolyn Kaster …

President Barack Obama had a clear message Sunday in his speech to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): It's war.

No, not against Iran. But against partisan politics, specifically the Republican line claiming the president hasn't supported Israel enough in its hardline position on Iran.

Obama sharply escalated his warnings to Tehran that the use of force is very much "on the table," as the foreign policy cliché goes, in a possible response to its nuclear program. But he paired that rhetorical ramp-up with a detailed plea for patience with diplomacy and bluntly charged that "too much loose talk of war" has helped, not hindered, the Islamic republic.

But Obama served notice that election-year Republican criticisms that he has been too tough on Israel and too soft on the Islamic republic had crossed a red line.

"There should not be a shred of doubt by now: When the chips are down, I have Israel's back," the president told AIPAC, listing a wide range of actions he's undertaken — like rescuing Israeli diplomats in Cairo, boosting security and intelligence cooperation.

"Which is why if during this political season you hear some question my Administration's support for Israel, remember that it's not backed up by the facts," said the president. "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," he said, to sustained applause by the crowd.

On the eve of talks at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was expected to press Obama to embrace a possible military approach to Iran's suspect nuclear program, the president sought to banish the notion of a US-Israel divide on Iran while making it clear he won't be rushed into conflict.

"Already, there is too much loose talk of war," he said. "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."

(A senior Obama Administration official, asked to whom the "loose talk" remark applied, told Yahoo News: "Everyone, press, politicians, pundits.")

"Obama offered clarity and commitments on mainstream Israeli concerns without capitulating to the Netanyahu narrative which is far more dismissive of diplomacy and which obviously indulges in talk of war," said Daniel Levy, head of non-partisan New America foundation's Middle East program.

But while the president laid out a case for letting diplomacy run its course, he went further than before in his warnings to Iran that, ultimately, it could pay a military price.

"Iran's leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States, just as they should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs," he said.

"I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it," said Obama, but "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 as I've 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," said the president.

Obama said he understood that Israel cannot "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."

Obama's appeal for patience with his diplomatic strategy coupled with his rhetorical escalation on the possible use of force drew immediate praise from Nicholas Burns, the senior diplomat who served as George W. Bush's point person on Iran.

"This is the most specific, and toughest, he's been," Burns told Yahoo News by telephone.

"He made clear it was unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and he was much more specific about the use of force. At the same time, his core message was 'don't strike now,'" Burns said.

"He was not giving Israel a green light..and he was responding to those who say there's no hope for negotiations, there's no hope for sanctions. If that's what Prime Minister Netanyahu is bringing, it's not going to be a convincing message," he said.

Burns said he expected that Israeli officials "really want to push the administration, hard, to set timelines."

But "[Obama] said there's time for diplomacy — not to be charitable to them (Iranians), but to serve our own interests," the former senior diplomat, now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, said. "We want to see 'is there a deal out there that will stop them (the Iranians) or is there not?'"

And he dismissed Republican attacks on Obama's approach as "completely baseless."

"Obama and Bush have had a nearly identical policy," said Burns. "If anything, Obama's been tougher — the sanctions certainly are tougher."

And there is widespread talk that the United States and Israel are already waging a covert war against Iran's nuclear and missile programs -- so widespread that it was featured in a controversial Israeli ad for Samsung tablets.

Netanyahu, speaking to reporters in Ottawa before heading to Washington, underlined that Obama had refused to rule out military action and declared that containment was not an option, while emphasizing that Israel had the right to "defend itself by itself."

Update, 5:40 p.m. EST: This piece was updated with comments from the New American Foundation and Netanyahu.

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