David Makovsky, Elliott Abrams, Aaron David Miller: three views on President Obama’s AIPAC speech

David Makovsky, Elliott Abrams, and Aaron David Miller.  Three top-tier Middle East experts. Three distinct backgrounds and perspectives on Middle East Policy.  And unsurprisingly given their backgrounds, three very different verdicts on President Obama’s speech today, and its implications for tomorrow’s meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister tomorrow at the White House.  First, I’ll touch on the assessments each gave of the speech itself, and then, of its potential impact on tomorrow’s meeting.

On the speech:

David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Makovsky, formerly an executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, certainly struck the most centrist tone of the three, taking a more analytical than political position.  “Obama said three new things that deserve attention,” Makovsky told me.  “First, he said no to containment.  Two: Israel is sovereign to make its own national security decisions.  And three – and I know he said this already in the Goldberg interview, but it still merits mentioning because it’s new – when he said all options are on the table, he was more explicit on the military option.”

Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations: Abrams, a former Reagan and Bush (both 41 and 43) administration official who has previously been disapproving of President Obama’s foreign policy, took an unapologetically critical tone towards Obama’s speech.  “I thought it was remarkably defensive politically,” Abrams said.  “Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2004 (during their respective re-election campaigns) did not have to spend all that time saying how good their record was, and warning the audience not to believe what the opposite party was likely to say.”

Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: A former State Department analyst and one of the leading advisors for Arab-Israeli negotiations to six different Secretaries of State during the 1980s and 90s, Miller turned the question on its head, arguing that his assessment of future Israeli behavior gives today’s speech far different implications than many others believe.  “I don’t believe an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent,” Miller told me, because “they could not set Iran’s program back more than a year.  Israelis cannot sufficiently end Iran’s nuclear ambitions full stop.”  Miller continued, “If I had to bet, we’ll be having this conversation again in a year.  At some point, the Israelis will feel compelled to strike.  But I don’t think we’re talking about now.”

On whether the speech sets up a successful meeting between President Obama and Prime Minster Netanyahu tomorrow, and the barometers for measuring such success:

Makovsky: “Clearly, one of the key issues to be resolved will be the role of diplomacy.  How much time does diplomacy have?  When does Iran enter the zone of immunity?  When is the expiration date on the military option? Can there be a convergence of policy between the United States and Israel in which, if Iran crosses such a line, Israel has the trust to hand this off to the U.S.?”  When pressed on this last point (“But wouldn’t handing the issue off to the U.S. de facto represent Israel placing its own national security in the hands of another country?”) Makovsky responded, “That’s exactly it. That’s why trust matters so much here.  You can agree on a convergence of red lines, but Israel still must believe that if they’re crossed, the U.S. will be willing to back up its words.”

Abrams: “On Iran, it did not go far enough in one key way: he kept talking about preventing actual development of a nuclear weapon when the Israeli red line is a nuclear weapons capability. That’s a distinction with a difference.”  

Miller: “My view is that tomorrow’s meeting will probably be the most successful they have had. Neither can afford a fight, or wants it.  Of course, the Prime Minster wants a green light [to attack Iran], and he won’t get it.  The President wants the red light, and he won’t get it…there is no way to square the circle.”  The issue of most importance, Miller concluded, is to present “a united front” in tomorrow’s statement in which the President “reassure[s] Netanyahu on policy on Iran without an ironclad guarantee that if Israel fails to attack, the U.S. will.”

About the Author
Mark is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.