In what might have been his most hawkish speech to date on
the Middle East, Barack Obama sought to shore up his
shaky support in the Jewish community with a security-first, diplomacy-second
blueprint. Compared to the speech given
on the same stage just over 24 hours earlier by Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, Obama clearly positioned himself as the stronger champion of Israel.
What looked like a home run, though, likely will not be, as
the candidate sounded a decidedly different note the very next day. Worse, it’s not the only set of mixed signals
that has been sent by Obama.
Speaking to the 7,000-strong crowd at the annual conference
for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in DC, Obama gave an
important nod to Israel’s
need for defensible borders. Rice did
Obama made no overt distinctions between Hamas and Fatah,
and he even appeared to take a jab at the supposedly moderate Palestinian
Authority government of President Mahmoud Abbas in attacking “government-funded
textbooks filled with hatred toward Jews.”
Rice, by contrast, lavished praise on Abbas.
Then there was Obama’s headline-making proclamation that Jerusalem
“must” remain the “undivided” capital of the Jewish state. No such reference from the secretary of
As people spilled out of the packed hall, Obama had gained
many newfound admirers—and he had reassured plenty of others. Merely a day later, though, he undid much of
the goodwill he had accumulated.
Most damaging was the rather curious explanation about what
he had actually meant by “undivided.”
Anyone who follows Israeli politics understands “undivided” to mean that
the eastern half of Jerusalem will
remain under Israeli control and not serve as the Palestinian capital.
Apparently not Obama, however. An unnamed Obama advisor told the Agence
France Press that Obama’s definition of “undivided” was strictly literal, that
the holy city is “not going to be divided by barbed wire.”
If that was what the candidate had intended to convey, he
failed miserably. In dozens of
conversations immediately afterward—either overheard by or involving this
columnist—not one discussed Obama’s desire to avoid barbed wire fencing from
running through Jerusalem.
Of all the knocks against the presumptive Democratic
presidential nominee, lack of clarity in carefully crafted speeches is not one
of them. No wonder many cynics believe
that Obama was pulling the equivalent of the old newspaper stunt of running the
allegation on the front page, but burying the correction on page 32 the next
While the quick shifting on Jerusalem
concerns many Jewish voters, it has the potential to look like a too-slick
politician—which would fundamentally undermine his core appeal of being
different and more honest.
Without a long track record on the national stage, Obama is
particularly vulnerable to being defined by his opponents—and parsing words
after-the-fact leaves him open to attacks as a Harvard lawyer who thinks he’s
smarter than his supporters.
Though a President Obama could be a stauch ally of the
Jewish state, he has yet to make believers out of many swing voters and even
Democrats for whom Israel
is a deeply important issue. And it’s no
guarantee he’ll be able to do so.
This latest flap only continues the confusion many in the
Jewish community have about Obama.
Several AIPAC conference attendees who otherwise like Obama cited as
deeply troubling the reporting of blogger Ed Lasky about some of Obama’s
advisors. Two in particular
understandably cause angst: former national security advisor for Jimmy Carter
Zbigniew Brzezinski and retired four-star general Merrill “Tony” McPeak.
Both have made unusually brazen claims about undue Jewish
political influence. Brzezinski, who has
no formal role but has been praised by Obama and has been asked to stand at the
candidate’s side in public, last month accused “some people in the Jewish
community” of being “McCarthy-ite.” He
had made similar comments last year, only to be later embraced by Obama. McPeak in a 2003 interview appeared to lay
blame for lack of peace in the Middle East on people who
“vote here in favor of Israel”
in “New York City” and “Miami.” Presumably knowing of these comments, Obama
selected McPeak to serve as a military advisor and national campaign co-chair.
To his credit, though, Obama counts among his early backers
staunch supporters of the Jewish state, such as Reps. Robert Wexler (D-FL) and
Steve Rothman (D-NJ). On his staff, Middle
East advisor Eric Lynn is solid and smart. And highly regarded pro-Israel advocates from
Chicago who ostensibly have kicked
Obama’s tires, such as AIPAC Treasurer Lee Rosenberg, maintain that a President
Obama would be true friend of the Jewish state.
With the strong historical Democratic tilt of the Jewish
community, Obama is still the odds-on favorite to capture the strong majority
of those votes. But since McCain is not
ceding that ground to him, Obama cannot rest.
Top on Obama’s to do list should be distancing himself
from the likes of Messrs. Brzezinski and McPeak and other Jimmy Carter
acolytes. Beyond that, Obama needs to be
more careful—and more consistent—in discussing the Middle East,
or otherwise he could find the Jewish community more “divided” than he’d like
it to be.