It’s well known that, with an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities potentially looming, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference beginning Sunday will be a defining point in relations between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
But thanks to some additions to the speakers’ roster this week, it’s also shaping up to be a pivotal campaign stop.
Voters in 10 states will head to the polls on Super Tuesday, including the swing state of Ohio and the state where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s hopes lie, Georgia.
Taking time-outs from making last-minute stops to shake hands and kiss babies, though, three of the four remaining Republican presidential hopefuls will begin the day by addressing AIPAC via satellite.
Gingrich was the first added to the speakers’ list, followed by committals from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
President Obama will speak at the opening plenary on Sunday morning.
And while Obama’s address will entail spelling out for a skeptical audience his administration’s policies on everything from dealing with a nuclear Iran to the Mideast peace process, he’ll also be arguing for another four years.
In 2008, Obama got 78 percent of the Jewish vote compared to 22 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). In 2010 midterm elections, according to J Street polling conducted by Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, Democrats got 66 percent of the Jewish vote.
September Gallup polling found support for Obama among Jewish voters at 54 percent. It was 83 percent in January 2009 and has followed the same downward trajectory as the nation as a whole.
But the commander in chief needs to worry about more than just the Jewish vote when he addresses AIPAC. New polling this week from The Israel Project conducted among registered voters found that 87 percent view Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to the United States and just 32 percent believe sanctions and diplomacy will stop the threat.
Fifty-seven percent polled believe that the U.S. should support Israel, 56 percent have warm feelings for Israel, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres are viewed favorably by a better than two to one margin.
Peres addresses AIPAC the same morning as Obama. Netanyahu headlines the Monday night gala.
As a senator giving his own presidential candidate speech back at the 2008 AIPAC conference, Obama hit various notes coming off a campaign where he’d said in Iowa, “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”
He began his speech by addressing “some provocative e-mails” about his candidacy that had been “circulating throughout Jewish communities.”
“They’re filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president,” Obama said. “And all I want to say is — let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening.”
In front of the AIPAC audience, Obama called himself “a true friend of Israel” and said, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
That riled supporters in the Arab world who though that Obama would be a 180-degree turn from President George W. Bush on Middle East disputes. Palestinian leaders said they weren’t surprised, though.
“Anyone participating in Jewish conferences in America tries to be more a Likud member than Likud members themselves,” Nimer Hammad, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said of the speech.
But a campaign spokesman later sought to “clarify” the Jerusalem statement, telling the Jerusalem Post that the final status should be negotiated between the two parties and that the solution should entail “Jerusalem remains Israel’s capital and it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.”
“There are those who would continue and intensify this failed status quo, ignoring eight years of accumulated evidence that our foreign policy is dangerously flawed,” Obama also said in the address. “As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency.”
He said that when he opposed the Iraq war: “I warned that it would fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East. That is precisely what happened in Iran.”
He said that McCain “refuses to understand or acknowledge the failure of the policy that he would continue.”
The tenor of the speech was criticized in some circles. “If Israel is in trouble today, it is not because of American foreign policy,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), an AIPAC staple speaking this year on Monday morning, told reporters after Obama’s speech.
But what tone will this year’s crop of GOP presidential hopefuls have to strike at the conference?
Only three are included because AIPAC refused to invite Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who hasn’t exactly made support for Israel a cornerstone of his campaign or tenure in the House.
Romney, Santorum and Gingrich all have the advantage of getting to retool their speeches to respond to Obama’s Sunday morning remarks and Netanyahu’s Monday night address.
Yet all three, based on their past statements and stances strongly in support of Israel, as well as December addresses to the Republican Jewish Coalition, are likely to please the bipartisan AIPAC audience.
Gingrich has already drawn headlines for perhaps the sharpest comments on the Mideast crisis this election cycle with December comments to The Jewish Channel.
“I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state,” Gingrich said. “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, who are historically part of the Arab community.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called it “the most racist statement I’ve ever seen.” Romney called Gingrich’s remark “a mistake,” while Santorum said, “I think you have to speak the truth, but you have to do so with prudence.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who will address AIPAC the same morning as the three Republican presidential hopefuls, called Gingrich’s comment “a can of gasoline and a match.”
Faced with a need to revive his campaign and to stress his perks when compared with two other pro-Israel Republicans, we may see the speaker’s most direct comments yet at this year’s AIPAC conference.