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Obama Scoots to the Center at AIPAC

Just a day after clinching the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama appeared before the gathering of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), as John McCain had done earlier in the week.

His mission: reaching out to American Jews, many of whom have expressed concern over his choice of Middle East advisors, his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright (who called Israel a “dirty” word), his past relationships with Palestinian activists and his position on meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmajinedad.

Ironically, his address came on the same day that embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was set to meet with President George W. Bush. For Olmert, facing a bribery scandal likely to end his tenure imminently, this is likely his last official visit to the White House.

The implication of the day was clear: by year’s end both countries will have new leadership.

Obama’s speech was noteworthy both for what he said and for what he did not – and for what he said differently than in the past.

As for what he said, he began by suggesting, as he has done before, that nefarious emails making their way across the Internet had given Jews the wrong idea about him:

I want to say that I know some provocative emails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. A few of you may have gotten them. They’re filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for President. And all I want to say is – let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening.

He then recited his personal devotion to Israel, correctly related his great uncle’s role in liberating Buchenwald (he previously had mangled the tale, indicating it was his uncle and the concentration camp was Auschwitz). He criticized U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush, and said that he remains devoted to Israel, promising to maintain Israel’s military advantage over its enemies.

He also declared: “The long road to peace requires Palestinian partners committed to making the journey. We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements.”

What he did not say is how he intended to pressure Israel’s enemies to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or how negotiations could succeed on his watch in the absence of a responsible negotiating partner. Nor did he explain the distinction between excluding terrorists from the negotiating table and negotiating with the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, Iran.

He also did not say how he would force Syria out of Lebanon, although he had many nice words of support for the U.N. resolution on the subject:

I also believe that the United States has a responsibility to support Israel’s efforts to renew peace talks with the Syrians. We must never force Israel to the negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when Israel’s leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests. As President, I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations. And success will require the full enforcement of Security Council Resolution 1701 in Lebanon, and a stop to Syria’s support for terror. It is time for this reckless behavior to come to an end.

What Obama said differently than in the past is what caused the most stir. Last September he skipped the vote to the Kyl-Liebermann Amendment classifying the Iranian National Guard as a terrorist organization (he opposed it and defended his opposition in its debate) . Other prominent Democrats including Hillary Clinton, fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid all voted in favor of the measure. At the time, and in a subsequent debate, Obama justified his vote, claiming it would empower the Bush administration to attack Iran as part of the war on Iraq. His website reiterated that position.

But that was then, this was AIPAC. In his speech, he spoke out in favor of “boycotting firms associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whose Quds force has rightly been labeled a terrorist organization.” Well that would be the vote he opposed.

Obama also threw in a few equivocations on direct meetings with the Iranian President, now saying:

We cannot unconditionally rule out an approach that could prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We have tried limited, piecemeal talks while we outsource the sustained work to our European allies. It is time for the United States to lead.

There will be careful preparation. We will open up lines of communication, build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, and evaluate the potential for progress. Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking. But as President of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing – if, and only if – it can advance the interests of the United States.

Again, that marks a change, if not a complete about face, from his promises to meet directly and unconditionally with Ahmajinedad.

He also claimed credit for having opposed the Palestinian elections in 2006:

That is why I opposed holding elections in 2006 with Hamas on the ballot. The Israelis and the Palestinian Authority warned us at the time against holding these elections. But this Administration pressed ahead, and the result is a Gaza controlled by Hamas, with rockets raining down on Israel.

However, in January 2006 speaking to Palestinian students he did not appear to take issue with the idea of elections at all. He said at the time, according to this report:

“Part of the opportunity here with this upcoming election is to consolidate behind a single government with a single authority that can then negotiate as a reliable partner with Israel.”

After Obama’s AIPAC address, the McCain camp struck back.

In a conference call for the media arranged by the McCain camp, Senator Joe Lieberman took Obama to task for his flip-flop on the Iranian National Guard while McCain national security advisor Randy Scheunemann ripped Obama for efforts to work with European allies ( Obama deemed it “subcontracting”), calling it “cowboy diplomacy” – denigrating our friends and rushing off to embrace state terror sponsors.

But it was up to John McCain to lower the boom. In the blogger conference call I asked about Obama’s change of heart. McCain’s answer, detailed here and here, made clear that he was not buying the new and revised general election version of Obama.

Neither did the Republican Jewish Coalition appreciate Obama’s newfound appreciation for the importance of classifying the Iranian National Guard as a terrorist organization:

Today before the pro-Israel community at AIPAC, Senator Obama tried to run from his Iran policy. In September 2007, a bipartisan effort in the Senate passed the Kyl-Lieberman resolution designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. At the time, Obama vehemently opposed this effort and used the opportunity as a political diversion to attack Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Now that he has the Democratic nomination, Obama is attempting to rewrite his history and pretend his opposition to Kyl-Lieberman never happened. But in truth, when given the opportunity to demonstrate principled leadership and judgment, Obama instead worked against the bipartisan effort to increase the economic pressure on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Addressing AIPAC was likely not the way Obama would have chosen to spend the day after wrapping up his nomination.

However, Israel – like his Iraq policy and domestic issues ranging from taxes to free trade – represents a challenge familiar to politicians who transition abruptly from primary dominated by the extreme wing of their base to a general election. Put bluntly, his task will be to scoot to the center without anyone noticing. So far, however, they are noticing.

So what are Jewish voters and non-Jews who are deeply concerned about Israel to believe? McCain hopes they take the admonition of Rep. Eric Cantor who reminded the media yesterday that support for Israel is “easy to say, hard to do” and that voters can look to McCain’s “thirty year record” of supporting Israel.

Obama supporters likely wish that many of those YouTube clips would just disappear and that voters will accept his lovely, reassuring, but newly fashioned words of support for Israel.

CORRECTION: In a previous version, the article said that Sen. Obama voted against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment. Sen. Obama skipped the vote, but opposed it and defended his opposition in the debate discussed in the piece.

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