WASHINGTON — After months of seeking to paint each other as opposites on Mideast policy, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the same page June 4 at the AIPAC policy conference as they ripped into the Bush administration and Republican presidential candidate John McCain on several fronts.
In back-to-back speeches a day after Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, the two U.S. senators eschewed any attempt to differentiate themselves. Instead, they both argued that the Bush administration’s policies on Iran and Iraq have hurt U.S. and Israeli interests.
They also sought to paint McCain as bent on carrying out those same policies if he wins the presidency.
Obama began his remarks with praise for Clinton and her candidacy, and the New York senator returned the favour, assuring the thousands of delegates at the annual policy forum of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Obama would be a dependable ally in the White House.
“I know Senator Obama knows what is at stake here,” Clinton said of her colleague from Illinois, adding, “Let me be very clear: I know Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.”
Jewish Democratic insiders said the speeches not only signalled a rapprochement between the candidates, but reflected the emergence of a wider, more aggressive party strategy for fending off Republican efforts to peel away Jewish votes and contributions.
A few years ago, many Democratic activists and lawmakers would have been content to stick with the line that both parties were equally strong on Israel. Now as Iran pushes ahead with its nuclear program, support remains low for the Iraq war and Israel continues to face Hamas rocket attacks, Jewish Democrats see an opening to rebut the Republicans’ claim to be the party that’s best for Israel.
“This is a new approach,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant whose communications firm also does work for many Jewish organizations. “Two years ago, many thought it would be difficult to persuade people that [President] George W. Bush had not been good for Israel, even dangerous to try it. It’s not only a case that can be made now, it’s also true.”
Rabinowitz said many Democrats feel emboldened to push that argument given the Republicans’ harsh rhetoric about Obama and Israel. McCain, an Arizona senator, has portrayed Obama as a Hamas-supported candidate, and Bush delivered a speech at the Knesset last month that many observers viewed as an attempt to tag the Illinois Democrat as an appeaser.
In his own speech to AIPAC on June 2, McCain said Obama’s plan for a phased Iraq pullout would create a “potential terrorist sanctuary” that would profoundly “affect the security of the United States, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran.”
But Obama fired back, painting Republicans as advancing a reckless foreign policy that has hurt Israel.
“I don’t think any of us can be satisfied that America’s recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure,” Obama said. “Hamas now controls Gaza. Hezbollah has tightened its grip on southern Lebanon and is flexing its muscles in Beirut. Because of the war in Iraq, Iran – which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq – is emboldened, and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States and Israel in the Middle East in a generation.
“Iraq is unstable, and Al Qaeda has stepped up its recruitment. Israel’s quest for peace with its neighbors has stalled, despite the heavy burdens borne by the Israeli people. And America is more isolated in the region, reducing our strength and jeopardizing Israel’s safety.”
“Senator McCain refuses to understand or acknowledge the failure of the policy that he would continue,” he said. “I refuse to continue a policy that has made the United States and Israel less secure.”
In a conference call immediately after the speech, McCain’s highest profile Jewish supporter, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, rejected Obama’s arguments, saying he was wrong to blame Iran’s resurgent power on the Iraq war.
“If Israel is in danger today, it is not because of American foreign policy,” Lieberman told reporters. “It’s because Iran is a terrorist, expansionist state.”
For most of the speech Obama voiced unabashed support for Israel. At one point, though, he did say that Israel could do more to ease Palestinian suffering and live up to prior commitments to refrain from building new settlements. Obama also stressed the need for a two-state solution, adding that Israel must remain a Jewish state with secure borders.
Obama also made several points more often associated with his hawkish Jewish critics: he insisted that Jerusalem must remain Israel’s undivided capital and stressed his willingness to resort to military force if diplomacy failed to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambition.
“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Everything.”
Obama also appeared to hedge on what some saw as an openness to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Though Clinton appeared to draw a warmer reaction, Obama received several standing ovations, including when he spoke of Judaism’s commitment to social justice and the importance of forging strong ties between the Jewish and African-American communities.