Jane Harman, former democratic congresswoman from California’s 36th district, and Liz Cheney, republican columnist and political commentator, opened AIPAC 2012 by squiring off over Iran during a panel discussion.

The discussion began in a cordial fashion but sparks began to fly when Cheney, commenting on the quality of U.S. intelligence said, “When U.S. Intelligence says X and Israeli intelligence says Y we should remember the U.S. has a poor track record on predicting a state’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons.” Harmon countered saying, “Our intelligence capability is good and is getting better.” She said there is agreement between Israel and the United States that Iran is a year away from getting full nuclear weapons capability and two years away from putting a nuclear warhead on a rocket.

The moderator tried to redirect the discussion toward the Syrian situation but both Harmon and Cheney were content to continue their debate over the effectiveness, or lack thereof ,of the Obama Administration’s dealings with Iran. When asked about Syria Cheney replied that the sanctions being pressed against Iran are affecting the Iranian people but not affecting the military establishment or their development of a nuclear weapon. Cheney said, “Anyone who says they (Iran) hasn’t decided whether or not to weaponize must ask why they are enduring economic sanctions and why they are continuing to turn international inspectors away.” She emphasized the fact that the redline on the Iranian nuclear program is not the date they might actually possess a working nuclear weapon, but rather the date they are capable of doing so.

Liz Cheney was the only conservative voice heard from the platform on Monday. Israeli President Shimon Peres followed the panel discussion and was warmly received by the 13,000 plus in attendance. He immediately praised President Obama for “being such a good friend to Israel.” He spoke of the historic miracle of the Jewish state. “For Israel,” he said, “The pursuit of peace is not a passing opportunity. It is a moral imperative.” When he spoke of Iran his comments were biting as he described Iran as “an evil, cold, morally corrupt regime based on destruction and an affront to human dignity.”

President Obama was greeted by a respectful and mostly warm response from the crowd. Early in his remarks he announced that Israeli President Peres has been invited to the White House later this spring to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the President can bestow on a civilian. This announcement was met with the most enthusiastic response of the crowd during the speech.

The President spent most of the rest of the speech trying to shore up his support of the Jewish community. All of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have painted the president as being weak in his response to the Iranian threat. In response, President Obama said, “When it comes to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon all options are on the table. A political effort, an economic effort, a diplomatic effort, and yes, a military effort,” are being employed. President Obama rejected the conservative characterization that he believes Iran can simply be contained. “I do not have a policy of containment. I have policy of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the president said.

The president scolded many on the right who are calling for a more substantial and perhaps, a military option for Iran. Speaking directly to his rivals for the presidency he said, “Already there is too much loose talk of war. There has already been too much of this. Now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in.” He concluded his remarks by resurrecting Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick”

Two things stand out from the opening session of AIPAC 2012. First, President Obama realizes he has a problem with the Jewish community. From his treatment of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a problem child rather than a precious friend by shunning him at the White House to his unannounced announcement of a call for Israel to consider a return to pre-1967 borders President Obama has opened a gap between the U.S. and Israel. That gap may not exist in his own mind but it certainly exists in the minds of many Jews as was evidenced by the somewhat tepid overall response he received during his speech. The President was forced to list what he believes are his many acts of support for Israel. He touted the record level of financial aid and military support his Administration has provided. He spoke specifically of $200 million in support of the “Iron Dome” program and of the unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli military intelligence agencies.

While true, these “accomplishments” touted by the president could be compared to a president touting his attendance at cabinet meetings as a sign of his commitment to being a good president. What President Obama has done represents the minimum of what any president would do and, while doing the minimum, the president has maximized tension with Israel by conducting an aggressive outreach to Israel’s enemies and reacting naïvely to the alarming rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a consequence of the Arab spring.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how Prime Minister Netanyahu responds to the president’s address when he takes the podium at AIPAC. President Peres adoration for President Obama is nice and it makes sense politically for someone in his position to come out in strong support of President Obama’s leadership. But with all due respect to President Peres the person with the most on the line is the Prime Minister. He can’t afford to ignore or downplay President Obama’s attempt to placate Israel’s enemies. The economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts of the Obama Administration have fallen far short of the promised results with Iran. The real question is will President Obama do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from reaching the capability of making a nuclear weapon? The jury is out on this question and Israel may believe they cannot afford to wait.

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