'I don't want to enter into American politics," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced in his speech by satellite link to the gala banquet at the AIPAC conference in Washington, DC, on Monday night. And then, of course, enter he did. He waded right into the heart of the debate that is dividing the United States, arguably the centerpiece issue of the accelerating 2008 presidential campaign. Olmert hadn't been scheduled to speak at the culmination of the banquet. He was, rather, set to address a session the following morning, at what would have been a sensible hour in Jerusalem. Ten at night in Washington, because the clocks had just changed, meant 4 a.m. Israel-time. Prime ministers really shouldn't be up at 4 in the morning giving speeches by satellite to a room overflowing with 6,000 political sophisticates, including hundreds upon hundreds of America's foremost legislators and members of the international diplomatic corps. As any of us would at that time of night, Olmert looked tired out, even as he convincingly declared his delight to be up at 4 a.m. because the opportunity to address those thousands of passionate pro-Israel activists was far too important to miss. He appeared to be speaking from notes rather than from a prepared text. And whether the absurdity of the hour skewed what he had intended to say, or he truly intended to formulate his central theme precisely as he did, it was plainly a departure from the official Israeli government line followed thus far on the vexed Iraqi issue. Just prior to the banquet, indeed, an Israeli official had been telling me how careful our diplomats in the United States are striving to be whenever Iraq is on the agenda, which is all the time. There is a sizable body of American opinion that is hyping the false notion that Israel encouraged the US to fight the Iraq war, this official said. The Walt-Mearsheimer assertions of an Israel lobby dominating American policymaking have been enthusiastically and widely co-opted, he went on. And the last thing Israel needs is to make itself vulnerable to the accusation that it is now trying to influence the agonizing discussion about how America should resolve Iraq. Then Olmert spoke. He spoke with a kind of exhausted passion. He said he was motivated "only by deep concern for the future of the State of Israel" and was not acting because of his friendship with President Bush. But the fact was, he said, that only Bush and America could confront Iran's aggression and its pursuit of a nuclear capability, which he described as the most "brutal, direct and explicit threat" ever posed to the existence of Israel. To effectively confront Iran, America had to be strong, he said. And America's strength depended on it achieving "success" in Iraq rather than exiting prematurely. The prime minister then turned to other issues, including jarringly extravagant professions of friendship for Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was sitting in the audience. But he returned to the topic of Iraq a second time toward the end of his remarks, clarifying, just in case anybody might have missed the point, that "when America succeeds in Iraq, Israel is strong in Israel." Olmert's comments endorsed the thinking Vice President Richard Cheney had set out before the same conference a day earlier, to considerable applause. Cheney asserted that "a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster for the United States and the entire Middle East" and that "it is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened, and Israel's best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened." Olmert sounded very much like Cheney. One of the difficulties of Olmert's insistently stated position, however, is that even Bush doesn't sound quite as much like Cheney as he used to anymore. As for the other key players in America's evolving political reality, their positions range far, wide and divisive. At the very same banquet concluded by Olmert's speech, the two principal Israel-lauding orators, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had set out absolutely opposing views on how to handle Iraq, with Reid urging a rethink because the current strategy wasn't working and McConnell insisting on staying the course. And each of them had wide support in that vast hall at the Washington Convention Center. Bush's would-be presidential successors - some of whom held their own dessert receptions immediately after Olmert's speech - take positions ranging all the way across the spectrum, from holding firm for as long as it takes to getting out right away. Only too aware of all this, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, also in town and no less concerned than any of the rest of us about the threat posed to Israel by Iran, had told reporters who questioned him on Iraq that it was neither desirable nor appropriate for him to enter that debate. Again, it may be that Olmert had pre-planned every comma, knew full well that he was potentially drawing Israel into the middle of the US debate on Iraq, and decided he simply had to do so for the existential good of our nation. His comments, moreover, probably reflected the thrust of mainstream Israeli opinion - the sense that humiliation for the US in Iraq will further embolden Iran and spell deepening trouble for Israel. But that consensus is not echoed here, where it is countered by the argument that fighting a debilitating war in Iraq is acutely harming America's ability to grapple with Iran and the wider terror threat. So Olmert was entering American politics all right, with all the consequent potential fallout with subsequent administrations; with opinion-shapers, notably those bent on fomenting American hostility to Israel, and even with the Jewish community, 77 percent of which considers the dispatch of US troops to have been a mistake - the highest such figure among any US religious group. Perhaps the prime minister's speech was a supreme act of political calculation, of higher stakes demanding certain prices be paid. But if so, it came as a surprise to many of the officials and players who would have been expected to be consulted and to have prepared for it. For all that it is wrestling over Iraq, the United States is most certainly trying to pursue an effective deterrent strategy over Iran. Trying harder than any other country. Congressman Tom Lantos, a Budapest-born Holocaust survivor and staunchest of friends of Israel, is pushing two initiatives intended to ensure that Iran won't go nuclear. The first, which he says is backed by the State Department and by the Russians, is designed to establish an international, supervised, nuclear fuel "bank" which, made available to meet any legitimate Iranian energy needs, would "pull the rug out from under Mr. Ahmadinejad [when] he claims that his nuclear energy plans... are designed for peaceful purposes." The second, in the form of legislation introduced just days ago in the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, "dramatically enhances sanctions against any company or country that invests in Iran's energy industry." Lantos describes this bill as "the single most important piece of legislation before Congress" and as representing "the only peaceful alternative" to Iran going nuclear "and potentially using its weapons, as Ahmadinejad has threatened, to wipe Israel off the map." It is still too early to effectively gauge what will become of this bill, but the desire for urgently heightened sanctions against Iran is widely shared - even, it should be stressed, among presidential candidates who most certainly do not share the Cheney-Olmert vision of what must be done in Iraq. Four presidential candidates held dessert receptions after the AIPAC banquet. Sen. Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion of Iraq and wants the combat brigades back home by this time next year, has nonetheless contemplated military action against Iran if it cannot otherwise be dissuaded. Obama pressed the flesh at a well-attended gathering and was quite quickly gone. Sen. Sam Brownback supported the Iraq war but not the dispatch of additional troops. On Iran he wants boosted spending to increase support for "civil disobedience" and pro-democracy groups in Iran and favors other efforts to heighten pressure on the regime. The sole republican contender to hold an AIPAC reception, he had less flesh to press but stayed longer. Sen. Joe Biden wants most troops home from Iraq by the year's end and favors direct talks with Iran. He recalled that he had been coming to AIPAC since the days when the attendees numbered only in the hundreds, but mustered just a few dozen for his event. And then there was Hillary Clinton. Sen. Clinton, who favors a cap on troop levels in Iraq and an imminent start to withdrawal, has also stated a readiness to negotiate directly with Iran in an effort to deter the nuclear drive. Here, for all that those stances depart from the vision now enunciated by Israel's prime minister as being the best course for friends of Israel to follow, Clinton was the only candidate to boast an invitation that featured the names of (about 20) AIPAC high-fliers as backers. Her event was mobbed, and she gave a brief speech endorsing tougher sanctions while again indicating that no option should be left off the table in seeking to deter Iran, including direct negotiations. Among those present was Israel's Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman, who kissed the candidate but, evidently quickly realizing that his presence might be regarded as some kind of endorsement, had disappeared by the time she called out his name to cheers. Another prominent figure was also there, at center stage in the Clinton reception, underlining the complexities of leading American politicians' positions on those issues so central to Israel's well-being: Introducing withdraw-from-Iraq candidate Hillary in glowing terms, and himself a committed supporter of "de-escalation" in Iraq, was none other than the sole Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, that most Israel-committed of legislators and would-be scourge of the mullahs, Tom Lantos.