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Obama at AIPAC: Working for the Jewish Vote

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.