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Obama and Israel: An Analysis of Barack Obama's AIPAC Speech

How Obama Hawked Up His Middle East Policy -- and Talked Tough on Iran

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Barack Obama at AIPAC

Barack Obama came to AIPAC--the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee--with a mission: to convince the most powerful pro-Israel lobby that he is a friend of Israel.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Updated June 13, 2008

Among the many misconceptions bedeviling Barack Obama’s candidacy for president is the notion that he’s soft on defense, and would be particularly unfriendly to Israel.

As the New York Times reported in May 2008 , “Because Mr. Obama is relatively new on the national stage, his résumé of Senate votes in support of Israel is short, as is his list of high-profile visits to synagogues and delis.” And because he did not campaign in Florida during the primaries, in his absence, “novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished. Among many older Jews, and some younger ones, as well, he has become a conduit for Jewish anxiety about Israel, Iran, anti-Semitism and race.”

The rumors and the anxiety are misplaced at best. Obama is anything but a softie on foreign policy, including Israel. If anything, he’s more a hawk than a dove , as I have noted before. And in a speech delivered to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee on June 4, 2008, Obama hawked up his allegiance to Israel and played down sympathies to Palestinians or Arabs. He did so with such zeal that the speech shook up assumptions about Obama in the Arab press.

Paying Tribute to AIPAC

AIPAC is the United States’ most powerful pro-Israel lobby. It has hundreds of thousands of members, a budget of $40 million and, as Aaaron David Miller writes in The Much Too Promised Land , “is more defensive about Israel and much more hard-line than any element in Israel.” AIPAC is the main reason why annual American military assistance to Israel has grown from $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion in 1998, and to $3 billion in 2008, not including supplemental aid.

AIPAC’s power is also the reason why American leaders of both parties never fail to accept the lobby’s invitation, as they did during AIPAC’s 2008 Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., June 2-4: Hillary Clinton , John McCain , Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell all paid tribute to the lobby in speeches during the conference.

So did, of course, Obama, on June 4, a day after clinching the needed number of delegates to win the nomination of the Democratic Party. The speech was greatly anticipated by Jews still wondering whether to throw their support behind Obama. It was also Obama’s chance to redefine his Middle East policy. He took it—and came out sounding more hawkish than any Democratic president had been since Harry Truman.

Obama Makes Support for Israel Personal

Obama framed his speech around the personal in two key regards.

First, he reminded his audience that being the son of a Kenyan who had abandoned the family when he was 2 years old, he “had grown up without a sense of roots,” and could therefore identify and understand the story of the Jewish diaspora and its resolution in the creation of Israel. In many ways, he said, “I didn’t know where I came from, so I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity and I understood the Zionist idea that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.”

Second, he evoked the civil rights struggle in the United States, reminding the audience that “I would not be standing here today if it weren't for the commitment that was made not only in the African American community but also in the Jewish American community and the great social movements in our country’s history--Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder.”

Both evocations were intended to make Obama seem like the natural ally of Jews in the United States, and, by extension, of Israel. Within that framework, Obama stressed no less than six times, in various ways, that he stands with Israel as an ally, without conditions or compromise: “Those who threaten Israel threaten us,” he said. “Israel has always faced these threats on the frontlines and I will bring to the White House an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. That starts with insuring Israel’s qualitative military advantage.” He supports what President Bush started: a $30 billion military aid package for Israel over the next 10 years.

A More Personal Commitment to Arab-Israel Peace Than Clinton or Bush

Early in his presidency, President George W. Bush made clear that he was not interested in getting personally involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process, or investing much of his administration’s capital in the process. In fact, he prohibited the use of the phrase peace process. Like President Clinton before him, although with less imagination, verve or commitment, Bush waited until the final year of his presidency to push for a Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Obama vowed to AIPAC that he “will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all that I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my administration.” The last, and really the only, American president to make such a personal commitment, at great political cost, was Jimmy Carter. Carter is also the last American president to successfully broker a peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors—in that case, Egypt.

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