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Ron Radosh

Obama at AIPAC: Working for the Jewish Vote

March 4th, 2012 - 8:49 pm

By Ron Radosh and Allis Radosh

An issue hovering in the air at this year’s annual AIPAC policy conference is their traditional stance of strict bipartisan support for Israel. From its founding in the early 1950s, AIPAC has stressed that Israel is helped the most when it has the support of both Republicans and Democrats. Being in the pocket of either party has been seen as something to be avoided at all costs. The group always tries to give leading figures from both major political parties equal time, in both plenary sessions and the so-called “outbreak” smaller sessions on various issues concerning foreign policy.

But bipartisanship can be more challenging in presidential election years. This quickly surfaced during the conference’s first panel on foreign policy when former Rep. Jane Harman spoke on a panel with Liz Cheney, a former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration and Dick Cheney’s daughter.  As our reporter Bridget Johnson noted earlier, Jane Harman argued that Israel should not be allowed to become a political football, but as Cheney countered, in her eyes no president has done more to hurt Israel than Barack Obama. While Harmon proclaimed that the president would never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb, Cheney pointed to America’s abysmal record at predicting other country’s nuclear capabilities.

The opening salvo between Harman and Cheney set the stage for the appearance of President Barack Obama. By now PJM readers have seen our report, and perhaps read the entire text of his speech as well. What is striking is that when Cheney ended her comments by saying that she hoped 2012 would produce a new president with a firmer pro-Israel policy, the hall broke out in loud and sustained applause — applause that obviously came from many Democrats as well as Republicans.

Given that response, perhaps it was not too much of a surprise to find that the response of the AIPAC crowd towards the president was respectful, but rather lukewarm. There were no boos, unlike last year — when Obama talked about Israel having to agree to the 1967 (actually 1948) borders — but no great outpouring of gratitude either for what he said.

Many of the AIPAC members we spoke to after the speech said it was essentially a campaign talk — an effort to cement the usually uniform Jewish vote for the Democrats, especially critical in a state like Florida where a small drop in Jewish support could mean a loss of this vital state in the Democratic column on election day.

What was most apparent were not the major lines meant to gather applause from the crowd — the president, for example, saying that he had Israel’s back and would always stand with it — but what he did not address.  An astute analysis came from Jonathan S. Tobin at Commentary magazine’s Contentions blog, who pointed out that despite not urging Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in the interest of peace — something he did consistently his first few years in office and last year at AIPAC:

Even more significant was the fact that despite his repeated vows to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, there was little indication that Obama is prepared to make the leap from talking about the danger to actually doing something. His call for continued efforts towards negotiations on the issue undermined all the hard line rhetoric intended to appease wavering Jewish Democrats. Though his campaign will spin this speech as more proof that Obama has “Israel’s back,” Iran’s leaders may read it very differently and assume they are free to go on building their weapon with little fear the U.S. really is contemplating the use of force.

To put it a bit differently, the devil as usual is in the details, and the president was not about to spell those out, preferring instead to say the things meant to win his audience and American Jews at large to the Democratic column, while remaining vague about the “red line” Iran cannot be allowed to cross.

Clearly, at the present moment, the leaders of Israel may see things quite a bit differently than the president of the United States. As Tobin and others argue, the previous attempt of those in the administration to make J Street its preferred Jewish organization is now dead on arrival. J Street and its cadre continue to argue against tough sanctions and for negotiations with Iran, and are not putting an emphasis on pressure to stop them from going nuclear. They once had high hopes that they would grow in great numbers as the Jewish allies of the Obama administration. By putting the Iranian threat on the front burner as a very real threat to be dealt with, the administration clearly has made the decision to move far from any identification with the self-proclaimed peace camp among American Jews. On that front, the attempt to depict AIPAC as right-wing and out of touch with most American Jews has been thankfully defeated.

The president may argue and emphasize all the military and technological intelligence that has been shared with Israel under his administration, but this aid and cooperation is different than the issue of a coherent foreign policy. As Tobin also points out:

The president’s Jewish admirers may believe his assertion that Russia and China have joined his coalition to isolate Iran, but the ayatollahs know that both countries are opposed to any further sanctions and that China stands ready to buy the oil the U.S. and Europe might boycott later this year.

The big question — will the U.S. and Israel have to eventually use some kind of force to prevent the ayatollahs from getting a nuclear bomb? — is still in effect on the back burner. Rather than pledge to use force, the president — as did Jane Harman earlier in the day — asked instead that the world, the U.S., and Israel all be patient and give diplomacy a chance. Critics rightfully respond that it has been given a chance, and each time the Iranians say they are ready to talk it is only to stall and play the U.S. so they can move along their chosen path of developing atomic weapons.

The president bemoaned “loose talk” about war with Iran, and seemed agitated when he said in the speech — in a rather hostile and annoyed tone of voice — that people don’t seem to understand what a great friend he has been to Israel. He seemed to be surprised, as if even those at AIPAC, the audience most concerned with the fate of Israel, were supposed to have forgotten all the undue pressure he put on Israel during his first two to three years as president, while not requiring anything similar from the Palestinians.

So the question remains: is Obama the best friend Israel has ever had as he would have us believe, or its worst foe?  This is not likely to be answered Monday night when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the same audience after a day of talks with President Obama. Given that Netanyahu has to assume that Obama has at least a 50/50 chance of a second term, he cannot publicly criticize him, and if strong differences occur in their private meetings, he will have to be diplomatic and make it appear that there is a unity between the two nations.

But any Israeli P.M., even one from the opposition Kadima or even Labor, has to put Israel’s fate first, and not wait for years of diplomacy until it finds that they waited too long, and Iran has a bomb.

Barack Obama’s speech was an attempt to keep the Jewish vote in the Democratic column in as high a number as possible. On that count, we suspect he will not be happy. It will be large and, yes, a majority of American Jews whose own religion is that of the Democratic Party will remain a solid bloc. But more than likely, the percent will be less than usual, and if that percent is in Florida, the president could indeed lose the election in 2012.

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