It was a tough message before a tough crowd.
On Monday night, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice made the case for a diplomatic solution to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — an argument that rankled many of the 16,000 activists who flooded Washington for the annual confab of the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization in the country.
Rice’s remarks, at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were a direct rebuttal to a series of bills supported by AIPAC over the last year that the White House has threatened to veto for fear the legislation would derail the delicate nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers, the so-called P5+1. One such proposal demanded that any deal prohibit Iran from enriching any uranium on its soil — a high bar, backed by Israel, which Rice called “neither realistic nor achievable.”
“We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal,” she said. “Even our closest international partners in the P5+1 do not support denying Iran the ability ever to pursue peaceful nuclear energy.”
The remarks exposed the fundamental disagreement between pro-Israel hawks inside and outside Congress and world powers in the P5+1 about what’s attainable in a comprehensive deal with Iran. The current talks involve imposing new restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for giving Tehran economic sanctions relief.
The remarks also sparked the most confrontational moment of the three-day conference.
When Rice acknowledged that “some argue we should just impose sanctions and walk away,” the crowd exploded in applause — a direct rebuke to the Obama administration’s assessment that such a strategy would abruptly end the talks and endanger international support for Iran sanctions as Washington received blame for failing to give diplomacy a chance.
As Rice continued to make the case for diplomacy, the cavernous convention center grew deathly silent, save for scattered applause from small pockets of the crowd. The backlash remained respectful, but contrasted starkly with the opening of her remarks, which recalled a trip to Israel as a 14-year-old girl, where Rice floated in the Dead Sea, picked fruit at a kibbutz, and “learned by heart the words of the sh’ma.”
Rice received loud applause during other portions of her speech, especially as she recalled her many votes in support of Israel at the United Nations, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys last summer, and the anti-Semitic attacks in Paris this winter.
“I was proud to fight again and again for Israel’s security and its basic legitimacy at the United Nations,” she said, “from leading the charge against the deeply flawed Goldstone report to casting this administration’s only veto in the Security Council to block a counter-productive resolution.”
Still, her remarks paled in comparison to the applause lines won by the next speaker, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who boasted about his scraps with the White House over his push for new Iran sanctions legislation. “I will not yield to those who wish to break me,” he said. “When it comes to defending the U.S.-Israel relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone.” Menendez, the most senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has received more money from pro-Israel groups than any other Democrat in the Senate.
The Monday speeches preceded the most anticipated event on Capitol Hill this week, a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress. In an interview with Reuters on Monday, President Barack Obama criticized Netanyahu for his opposition to the Iran talks, and said the Israeli leader was wrong before when he opposed the 2013 interim deal with Iran.
“Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars’ worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true,” Obama said.
Netanyahu is expected to make his case against a P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran — a fact that is apparently making U.S. officials nervous. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry made a vague warning against revealing sensitive details about ongoing negotiations — a statement many interpreted as a warning to Netanyahu.
“We are concerned by reports that suggest selected details of the ongoing negotiations will be discussed publicly in the coming days,” Kerry said. “I want to say clearly, doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share in order to get a good deal. Israel’s security is absolutely at the forefront of all our minds but rightly so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States.”