By Bridget Johnson - 03/23/10 05:13 AM EDT
The night before meeting with President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed the right of Israel to build in East Jerusalem.
The diplomatic flap between the U.S. and Israel over plans to build 1,600 housing units -- plans approved during Vice President Joe Biden's trip through the region earlier this month, sparking a livid reaction from Washington -- has been one of the most sensitive issues at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's conference. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton received a stony reaction from the crowd Monday morning when she defended the White House's harsh objections to the new construction.
"The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied," Netanyahu said. "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today.
"Jerusalem is not a settlement; it's our capital," he added, in a sign of how talks with Obama could go Tuesday.
Before the prime minister's speech, which closed out the evening, Graham said he was "not going to get political," then dove into the controversy headlong.
"Friends disagree; that's part of being friends," Graham said. "They call it marriage," he quipped, noting that because of the potential of third parties to exploit diplomatic rifts the U.S. and Israel should "disagree quietly."
Then Graham added: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. No government of the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement. It is the capital of Israel, the undivided home of the Jewish people."
That brought the crowd jumping to its feet.
But the other issue that weighed heavily on the conference, and on the speakers' lips, was the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that this week Obama would receive a letter that he penned with Graham, insisting that immediate sanctions be imposed on Iran. AIPAC officials said members would be hitting up all legislators on Tuesday to urge them to sign onto the effort.
"We cannot, we must not, we will not turn a blind eye as Iran gets a nuclear weapon," Schumer said in his Monday night speech. "Diplomatic efforts have failed... economic sanctions are the best way to choke Iran's nuclear ambitions."
Schumer urged not waiting for the unlikely prospect of Russia and China coming around and backing tougher sanctions against the Islamic Republic at the U.N. Security Council. "The U.S. must hit Iran first on our own with unilateral sanctions," the senator said, adding that once the House and Senate sanctions bills are reconciled and the final legislation is on Obama's desk for a signature, "he must put the sanctions into effect immediately."
Graham mused whether this would be the last AIPAC meeting before Iran gets a nuclear weapon. That would be a 14-month timeframe, he noted.
"A military strike to stop Iran from having a nuclear weapon is more effective than trying to stop Tehran after they have a nuclear weapon," Graham said.
"This is 2010 and we're wondering what to do with a president who denies the Holocaust," he said, referring to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We do what we have to do to ensure there is no second Holocaust."
Netanyahu similarly sounded the theme of time running out on dealing with Iran.
"Iran's rulers say Israel is a one-bomb country," the prime minister said. "The head of Hezbollah says if all the Jews gather in Israel it will save the trouble of us going after them worldwide.
"The greatest threat to any living organism... is not to recognize danger in time, is not to recognize the facts."
Netanyahu stressed that Israel had a right to defend itself, and said that overt anti-Semitism that had been tempered by the realization of the horrors of the Holocaust after the fact was surely raising its head again. "It is not merely directed at the Jewish people; it is directed at the Jewish state," he said.
But, he said, that doesn't mean Israel is above criticism, especially among its own lawmakers -- leading, he said, to "very vigorous" debate in the Knesset.
"In Israel, every week is healthcare week," Netanyahu quipped, earning laughs from the dozens of senators and scores of House members in attendance.