Obama Works A Tough Room at AIPAC

Obama Works A Tough Room at AIPAC


Two days after John McCain paraded his tough-guy image in front of 7,000 supporters at the annual meeting of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Barack Obama delivered his own version of the Israeli national anthem this morning. For Obama, the AIPAC conference seemed like a tough room to work. But, by all indications, he wowed ’em.

He started out by citing “provocative e-mails” circulating in the Jewishcommunity. (He didn’t provide details, but people in the AIPAC audiencedid, when I asked: that Obama is captive of Palestinian ideology, thatObama is a secret Muslim, and so on.) “Let me know if you see this guyBarack Obama,” said Barack Obama, “because he sounds like a scary guy.”

Virtually every speech ever delivered to an AIPAC conference, going back54 years to the first AIPAC conclave, is a litany of pro-Israelishibboleths. Obama didn’t disappoint. He learned about the Holocaust from a camp counselor at age 11, he said, and his great-uncle helped to liberate Buchenwald. Check. “As president I will never compromise whenit comes to Israeli security.” Check. He advocates strengtheningUS-Israeli military ties, and wants to sign a memorandum ofunderstanding to provide Israel with $30 billion in military aid overthe next ten years to “ensure Israel’s qualitative military advantage.”Check. No negotiations with Hamas and Hezbollah. Check. And while hewill talk to Iran, it will be “tough and principled diplomacy with theappropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing–if, andonly if–it can advance the interests of the United States.” Check. Andjust in case AIPAC thinks that he won’t act, Obama added: “I will alwayskeep the threat of military action on the table.”

In case anyone missed the point, Obama added: “I will do everything inmy power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” He repeatedthat sentence twice, for emphasis. And for additional emphasis, he saidagain: “Everything.”

Before the speech I wandered around, speaking to a couple of dozen AIPACattendees. What I heard was uncertainty, nervousness, anxiety–andalmost none of it was based on Obama’s actual views. It was just, youknow, a feeling. “I don’t trust him,” said Menachem, from Illinois. “Idon’t go according to what people say. I am using my intuition.” SaidAlan, “We went to lobby him last year, and he seemed, well, I don’tknow. It’s his body language.” Many AIPAC’ers said Obama would talk toterrorists. Diba, from California, said: “I don’t think Obama has takena strong stand for Israel. He is saying all the right things, but Idon’t think that he means it.”

After the speech, it was a different story. “Did he make the sale? Oh,absolutely!” said Abe. “He addressed the rumors. He spoke from theheart. For me, he settled it,” Lisa, from Michigan,said. Said Jay, fromWashington, “Obama had to describe himself for this crowd. And I thinkhe came across well. People were listening very carefully, and I thinkthey believed him.” A young man from Los Angeles, still undecidedbetween Obama and McCain, said: “He really made me think. He surprisedme. He made the point that Israel is weaker and less safe after eightyears of the Bush Administration’s policies.”

That latter point was central to Obama’s address at AIPAC, which wasinterrupted numerous times by standing ovations, cheers and thunderousapplause. Obama blasted McCain for his fealty to the “failure” of Bush’sbull-in-a-falafel-shop approach to the Middle East, which, he said, (1)allowed Hamas to take power in the occupied territories, (2) allowedHezbollah to make major gains in Lebanon, (3) strengthened Iran’s powerin the region, (4) turned Iraq into an unstable state, and (5) isolatedthe United States from its friends and allies in the region, especiallyamong the Arabs. By proposing a “responsible, phased redeployment of ourtroops from Iraq” (“we will get out as carefully as we were carelessgetting in”) and by offering incentives to Iran if they abandon theirnuclear program, Obama said that he will make Israel safer and moresecure.

If you were listening for Obama to say anything about the suffering ofthe Palestinian people, well, that will be in a different speech.

Obama, of course, pledged that he will work for a two-state solution tothe Israel-Palestine speech. In a slap at the White House, whichlaunched a half-hearted, way-too-late peace effort at the end of 2007,Obama added: “And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency.”

The meeting at AIPAC, largest in its history, is a grand affair, fillinga cavernous hall at the Washington Convention Center, with fully a dozenwall-sized monitors set up to display speakers’ images. Everyone who’sanyone spoke: Obama, McCain, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner,Condi Rice, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and–hmm, someone else, someoneelse–oh, right: Hillary Clinton. Clinton rushed through her speech, tromping on her own applause lines, as if she couldn’t wait to get out of there. (No, she didn’t concede this morning, either. But she did say:”I know Senator Obama understands what it is at stake here. … I knowthat Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.”)

McCain, speaking on Monday morning, didn’t break any new ground. Heattacked Obama for not supporting the Senate resolution introduced bySenators Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl that would have designated theIranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. “Overthree-quarters of the Senate supported this obvious step, but notSenator Obama,” said McCain. He criticized Obama for wanting to trysomething as radical as diplomacy. And of course he warned that therewould be a “catastrophe, … all-out civil war, genocide, and a failedstate in the heart of the Middle East” if America does what Obamaproposes, and leaves Iraq. That, he said, would embolden Iran.

Obama wasn’t letting McCain get away with that one. “He [McCain]criticizes my willingness to use strong diplomacy, but offers only analternate reality–one where the war in Iraq has somehow put Iran onits heels,” said Obama. “The truth is the opposite. Iran hasstrengthened its position.”

An AIPAC meeting, of course, is hardly the place to look for enlightenedspeech about the Middle East, and there was precious little of it to befound anywhere on the speakers’ rostrum this week. But Barack Obama, whoentered the lion’s den an unknown quantity, won more than a fewconverts.

For me, the highlight of Obama’s speech came at the end, when he spokemovingly, and passionately, about the alliance of Jews andAfrican-Americans who led the civil rights movement in the ’50s and’60s.

In the great social movements in our country’s history,Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder. They tookbuses down south together. They marched together. They bled together.And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner werewilling to die alongside a black man–James Chaney–on behalf offreedom and equality.

Their legacy is our inheritance. We must not allow the relationshipbetween Jews and African Americans to suffer. This is a bond that mustbe strengthened. Together, we can rededicate ourselves to end prejudiceand combat hatred in all of its forms. Together, we can renew ourcommitment to justice. Together, we can join our voices together, and indoing so make even the mightiest of walls fall down.

He said that in a rising crescendo, during a standing ovation, that wenton and on. It was a powerful moment.

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