Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waded into the thick of America's messy political debate on Iraq late Monday night when he told thousands of AIPAC supporters that "premature" withdrawal from the country could harm Israel and efforts against Iran. Olmert stressed that he didn't want "to enter American politics" with his comments and that they didn't stem from his strong personal friendship with US President George W. Bush.
Olmert urges US to stand firm on Iraq
But the move was a sharp departure from Israel's recent policy of saying little on the war in Iraq and avoiding any display of partisanship. It comes at a time when the Democrats have been harshly critical of the White House's handling of the effort and most voices backing a long-term US presence come from the Bush administration and its supporters.
"Those who are concerned for Israel's security, for the security of the Gulf states, and for the stability of the entire Middle East, should recognize the need for American success in Iraq, and responsible exit," Olmert said.
He referred to the US as the only country that could effectively confront the Iranians, and said, "The consequences of premature action in Iraq" could potentially affect the security of the Middle East, particularly "on those threats emerging from Iran."
He concluded his comments on Iraq by saying, "When American succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer. The friends of Israel know it. The friends who care about Israel know it."
Olmert's comments raised eyebrows among many of the approximately 6,000 AIPAC supporters in attendance at a gala dinner, where they were joined by more than 200 US representatives and nearly half of the Senate. President candidates Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Joe Biden and Sam Brownback were also in attendance.
While many of the delegates at the event raised questions about Olmert's motives in bringing up Iraq, with those with Democratic leanings voicing some private criticism, the impact of the address was diminished by its timing. Olmert was roused at 4 a.m. Israel time - 10 p.m. in Washington - to speak by video link from his Jerusalem home to the gathering.
Many had already left, and on Tuesday morning they were more focused on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's address before they dispersed to visit some 500 congressional offices. There they lobbied representatives on the need for tougher Iran sanctions, aid to Israel, and a firm line on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
Pelosi (D-California) roused the crowd with her support for Israel and the three IDF soldiers being held hostage, bringing the audience to its feet when she help up copies of their dog tags presented by the wife of one of the captives.
But she received some boos alongside a smatter of applause with her own comments on Iraq. "Any US military engagement must be judged on three counts - whether it makes our country safer, our military strong, and the region more stable. The war in Iraq fails on all three counts," she said.
Other Israelis in Washington for the conference were more reticent about their views on Iraq. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking to reporters on Monday ahead of Olmert's remarks, said it was not "desirable or appropriate" to enter into the debate over Iraq.
And when Defense Minister Amir Peretz was asked to address the war in Iraq, he declined to comment. Sources close to him, though, said there was discomfort at Olmert "injecting" himself into the highly politicized American dispute.
Peretz also declined to address the Winograd Committee's decision to publish personal recommendations on key figures, including the defense minister, in its preliminary report next month.
He did, however, describe as open and constructive talks he held Tuesday with America's new defense secretary, Robert Gates. They discussed shared concerns about Iran and global terrorism, as well as ties between the two countries's defense establishments.
Peretz said, "2007 will be a year that will pose a critical test" of the diplomatic approach on thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions.
America, he said, would lead that effort.