Live blogging AIPAC, Leon Panetta and the candidates


Tuesday morning is traditionally the time for Senators to pitch the bills that AIPAC wants its activists to take up to the Hill on Tuesday afternoon.

This is an election year, and for the first time, AIPAC is giving time to challengers to a sitting president.

Time has been slotted, however, for the senators’ pitch. Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John Isakson (R-Ga.)

The combined pitch, now being delivered by Isakson (in what is non-partisan speech, which is becoming extraordinary for this year’s conference):

–The enhanced relationship bill he has coauthored with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), which would ramp up intelligence sharing and missile defense cooperation;

–The Senate Resolution Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced a couple of weeks ago that would redefine the U.S. red line with Iran from "acquiring" a nuclear weapon to "acquiring the capability" to build one and-

–Keeping defense assistance to Israel at current levels, despite budget crunching.

Levin opened the session, ostensibly because of his status as the chairman of his body’s Armed Services committee and as the doyen of the Senate’s Jews, but there’s another reason he’s an interesting choice: Levin led the effort in 2002 and 2003 to force President George W. Bush to seek authorization of the Iraq war.

Levin, notably, did not mention in his remarks the closest thing this time around to such an authorization regarding Iran — the Casey-Graham-Lieberman resolution.

He also defended Obama against the shots he’s absorbed throughout this conference:

No doubt you’re expecting me to come here this morning to back the president’s policies — I’m sure not going to disappoint you …

He has made clear that our goal is preventing a nuclear Iran, not just containing a nuclear Iran.

When the president says all options ra eon the table when it comes to preventing a nuclear Iran i believe him.

Iran ignores the president of the United States and his words at their peril.

He concludes:

There are now some who would use extreme and divisive rhetoric to drive a wedge between supporters of israel

We do a disservice to the security of our nation and of Israel if we sit calm to those who would use Israel to divide us for partisan gain.

So much for that: Candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney followed, and tossed out red meat liberally.

Santorum starts off by implicitly distinguishing himself from Romney and Newt Gingrich — he’s there in person:

I wanted to come off the campaign trail to come here. One of the reasons I decided to run for president is because of the grave concerns I have for our country and the leadership of our country.

Here are some of his Obama shots:

From everything I’ve seen from the conduct of his administration, he has turned back on the state of Israel (referring to Obama’s recently oft-repeated "We’ve got Israel’s back.")

On Iran:

There is a clear and unfortunate and tragic disconnect between how the leaders of Israel and of the United States view the exigency of this situation

There is obvious concern about what this administration is doing or not doing to bring this issue to a head

He says he would warn Iran to stop its nuclear activity and open up its facilities to inspections immediately.

Neither he nor Romney makes real news, although Romney repeates his pledge to make Jerusalem his first stop as president, and embraces the "capacity" red line. he also says he would indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under the genocide convention. (I understand the basis of the charge — inciting genocide is a criminal act — but I’m not sure about the mechanism — how does a U.S. president indict anyone?)

I’ll insert some more Romney grabs a little later, but Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, is speaking.

Panetta says he is the "first secretary of defense to address the AIPAC policy conference in 20 years." Interesting factoid — it’s not as if Donald Rumsfeld or William Cohen were unfriendly.

Panetta says he hosted Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s director, and Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC’s chairman, a few weeks ago in his Pentagon office. (A nod to AIPAC’s access.)

Speaking of the U.S.-Israel relationship, he says, "our shared desire and our shared commitment to working together are absolutely essential." (Subtext: Share, Bibi, share.)

Backed when they roomed as House members, Chcuk Schumer made Panetta say the Shema every night, and Panetta made Schumer say the Hail Mary.

Remembers 1993, "when Yitzhak Rabin courageously extended his hand in peace."  He notably leaves out to whom it was extended — Yasser Arafat.

His stint as CIA director cemented "unprecedented" closeness with Israel and Mossad. Namechecks Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo — notably, both me afre known to be profoundly skeptical of a strike on Iran.

After our opeation to get Bin Laden the first congratulations I got were my buddies in Mossad

His sessions with Ehud Barak sound like an Italian sitcom:

We talk, we argue, we eat, we are family.

Applause line:

The cooperation between our military and intelligence agaencies deeper and stronger and broader than at any other time in my experience in  government.

Obama has made it a priority "to boost Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East."

A strong Israel deters potential aggressors. 

Notes that Obama has doubled commitment to missile defense, over previous G.W. Bush commitments, to $620 million (hitting back at claims that Obama has cut such assistance.)

We are committed to moving forward with all of these systems and more because as the PM told me and I agree, these missile shields do not start wars, they prevent wars.

Panetta mentions sale to Israel of F-35s, widely seen as the most advanced fighter aircraft. Also, the joint training exercises, including Austere Challenge, which Israel postponed until the end of this year.

Panetta is not really making news here —  no unveiling of a new cooperative plan.

Okay, Panetta makes news in the wrapup, not by any reveal, but in his message:

We are stronger when we act as one.

Lest anyone thing he is not referring to the hard time the Israelis have been giving him about when and whether they will strike Iran, he adds:

The United States must always have the unshakeable trust of our ally Israel.

Gingrich runs through his pledges — first day in office, he moves the embassy to Jerusalem, energey independence, undermine Iranian regime, etc. — and scores Obama for not understanding "radical Islam."

But the takeaway is going to be the ten seconds of dead air while he waited for questions from a nonexistent panel.

There will be laffs, but it raises an interesting question: Why did Romney get a panel, and not Santorum or Gingrich?

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