Forget the Palestinians — Iran is the big issue for presidential hopefuls

It was not the first time Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had told this story. Apparently, she thinks it resonates with Jewish-American crowds. It is the story of her last meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before he went into a coma, how he showed her the sheep on his farm, and she, city girl that she is, had never met a sheep face-to-face, or so she says.

In consequent phone call with Mr Sharon, the story goes, she asked him how the sheep were doing. They miss you, he replied. It is a nice story — but not the full version. Last year, in a column I wrote with my colleague Aluf Benn, we described what took place.

Mr Sharon begins by identifying with the suffering of the Palestinians and speaks of the great opportunity that waits for them in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. Ms Rice’s ears perk up; it’s not every day that you hear Mr Sharon displaying such empathy.

“There are only two problems,” says Mr Sharon, turning his gaze to his left. “Dubi, how do you say ‘bloodthirsty’ in English?” Mr Sharon’s adviser Dov Weissglas chokes on his avocado salad as an embarrassed silence fills the room. US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams translates the term. Now it is Ms Rice’s turn to choke on her salad.

“There are only two problems,” repeats Mr Sharon. “They’re bloodthirsty and treacherous.”

“All of them?” asks Ms Rice. “Yes,” the prime minister responds. “All of them.”

Ms Rice does not mention this part of the story because it does not fit her goal. She came to Aipac with a clear message in mind. “Maintaining focus on the Palestinian track” was how she framed it: forget the hype about Syria and help me achieve a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of the year.

Aipac delegates tended to cheer speakers when they talked tough on Iran, and to remain relatively silent when they talked about peace with the Palestinians. By the lack of cheering from the Aipac crowd as Ms Rice was speaking about the Palestinian peace process, one might assume that it is the other story — the one she did not tell — which resonated much more than her plea vigorously to pursue the Palestinian track.

Iran might be the most dangerous country on Earth. It is also a useful American political football, especially in the pro-Israel community. Thus, at Aipac, the ball was kicked back and force with relative force. The Republican candidate, John McCain, used it to show that he was the candidate best equipped to deal with Iran, “a danger we cannot allow”, he said. And Democratic hopeful Barack Obama agreed, but had his own way of spinning it.

Iran is a problematic issue for Mr Obama when he deals with pro-Israel constituents. His call for diplomatic engagement can easily be manipulated to show that he is not as tough as Mr McCain. However, in his Aipac speech it seemed as if Obama found the argument he is going to use for the remainder of this long campaign.

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan famously asked the voters in 1980, when he was running against Jimmy Carter. Mr Obama is using a version of this same argument when he talks about Iran. “The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat,” Mr Obama said. But he also reminded the voters that President Bush, with all his bravado, had little success in eliminating it.

This is a clever argument, even if it fails to get the support of all Aipac delegates. It enables them to keep debating the tactics — but aims to remove the suspicion that Mr Obama does not care about the Iranian threat.

Mr Obama might think that the policies of President Bush were endangering Israel rather than helping it, but the Prime Minister of Israel begs to differ. Ehud Olmert, not for the first time, used the occasion of speaking to Aipac to express “my admiration and gratitude to a remarkable friend, President George W Bush”. It seems as if he finds using Aipac
to enrage Democrats irresistible.

Last year, he hailed President Bush’s policies in Iraq, and called upon the US not to withdraw its forces prematurely. This year, it was more subtle — and maybe not as important. Mr Olmert, as everybody knows, is a lame duck. His words do not carry the same significance as was the case last year.

However, Mr Olmert was asserting something that will make it easier for Israel-sceptics in the US to tie Israel to unpopular Bush policies, in a fashion similar to how Democrats are now trying to tie Mr McCain to the Bush years.

“Israel will never capitulate to terrorism or choose appeasement in the face of evil,” Mr Olmert said. “Our stand in this regard is unequivocal and is completely on a par with the policies of President Bush and his administration.” And he also praised the speech President Bush recently delivered in the Knesset — a speech many believe was a swipe at Mr Obama.

On one issue, though, Mr Olmert seemed to agree more with Mr Obama than with President Bush: negotiations with Syria. “Peace between Israel and Syria is a clear Israeli interest,” he said — Israeli, but not necessarily American. Not the way the Bush administration interprets US interests in the region. Not the way McCain interprets US interests in the region. The way Obama does, and Olmert. But only one of them still has a chance to pursue this policy next November.

Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz chief US correspon-dent, writes at www.rosnersdomain.com

    Last updated: 10:39am, June 5 2008