AIPAC plans to battle Iran as conference begins

Vice President Joe Biden defends the Iran nuclear agreement at the AIPAC policy conference. Photo by Melissa Gerr.
Vice President Joe Biden defends the Iran nuclear agreement at the AIPAC policy conference. Photo by Melissa Gerr.

Vice president Joe Biden on Sunday night addressed an AIPAC policy conference that was divided on the extent of the strength of the Obama administration’s support for Israel.

Speaking at the Verizon Center to the pro-Israel lobby’s annual gathering, Biden quoted Irish writer James Joyce and poet William Butler Yeats, as well as Zionist father Theodor Herzl, as he outlined an optimistic view of the Middle East.

Because of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, “Iran is much, much further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon than they were a year ago,” he said. As of today, more than two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges have been removed. More than 98 percent of the stockpiles … have been shipped out of the country. And the core of the reactor and … has been filled with cement. And unprecedented inspections are happening.”

He gave three reasons for being optimistic about trends in the Middle East. First, all parties are in agreement that Iran’s activities are destabilizing for the entire region. Second, Arab nations understand how radicalization presents a threat to their own security. And third, Israel is emerging as a regional powerhouse.

“Israel is stronger and more secure today because of the Obama/Biden administration. Period,” the vice president declared, drawing boos from the audience.

He said the new defense memorandum of understanding being negotiated by Israel and the United States “will without a doubt be the most generous assistance package in the history of the United States. And I’m hopeful that we can work out all the details. … As I told Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President [Reuven] Rivlin, Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get everything it needs. First, Israel’s security is about more than military needs … it means making sure that Israel will always exist.”

When he warned that Israel’s settlement activities are moving the situation in Israel and the Palestinians “to a one state reality, a reality which is dangerous,” he drew applause from one side of the Verizon Center and booing and screaming from the other.

Biden expressed hope that his audience was as happy as he that Iran was farther from a nuclear threshold than it had been a year ago. But speaking just before Biden’s appearance, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr described just how unhappy the organization was.

AIPAC lost a fight with the Obama administration last year when the Senate approved the agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. On Sunday night, Kohr announced that Iran was again the group’s top issue.

“The struggle to prevent a nuclear armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over,” he told thousands of Israel supporters at the Verizon Center. “So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival,” he said to a round of applause.  “Its nuclear program is not dismantled, it’s in delay. And that’s even if Iran abides by the deal.”

Kohr said negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading to a two-state solution was AIPAC’s number-two priority. Third was increased American support for Israel’s military strength.

But even Sunday morning, it was clear that Iran was high on AIPAC’s agenda, as speakers warned about what they said were the consequences of a flawed nuclear agreement.

“The Iranians will mostly abide by the deal,” said Emanuele Ottoleghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in two sessions called “Nearing Implementation Day” and “After Implementation Day.”

Iran is motivated to adhere to the 15-year agreement because in the eighth year, the United States will lift its restrictions on Iranians studying nuclear physics here. “By the time the deal expires, Iran will have a legion of U.S. trained nuclear scientists,” who will greatly enrich Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

Ottoleghi said it is futile to hope that the United States and its allies can re-impose sanctions on Iran. “It took a years for Iran to feel the bite of sanctions. In 15 years Iran will be able to break out in weeks.”

In another session on the Iran nuclear deal, Omri Ceren, managing director for press and strategy for The Israel Project, reached the same conclusion as Ottoleghi.

If attempts to deprive Iran of a nuclear weapon fails, “the United States will have to have a military response,”Ceren said.

Over lunch, the talk was less about Iran and more about the appearances on Monday of the presidential candidates.

“That’s what really got me excited,” said Michael Goller from Cincinnati, a Donald Trump supporter.

Ross Mellman, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he was looking forward to what the candidates have to say. He disapproves of plans to boycott or protest Trump’s appearance.

“All candidates are here to speak and should be heard,” he said. “Some of the people here are missing that message. It’s just common courtesy.”

“Probably a high amount of people want to hear about what Trump says about Israel,” said Ava Fagin of New York.

“He’s the guy people want to hear from,” said Mark Zucker, of Chicago. “The protests are the side story. The important thing is: what are his views, because he’s one of the two major candidates.”

Eliana Elikan, 15, from Silver Spring, said she was disappointed that Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the only presidential hopeful not speaking at the conference. She likes Sanders, but she said he lost her support because he reportedly sought advice from the liberal J Street, which she criticized as “more non-interventionist.”

“I am a big supporter of Israel,” she said. “It is my number one issue.”

Daniel Schere and Joshua Runyan contributed to this article.

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