WASHINGTON (JTA) – After months of seeking to paint each other as opposites on Middle East policy, U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the same page Wednesday at the AIPAC policy conference as they ripped into the Bush administration and John McCain on several fronts.
In back-to-back speeches a day after Obama appeared to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, the two senators eschewed any attempt to differentiate themselves. Instead they opted to argue that the Bush administration’s policies on Iran and Iraq have hurt American and Israeli interests.
Obama and Clinton also sought to paint McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, as bent on carrying out those same policies if he were to reach the White House.
Obama began his remarks with praise for Clinton and her candidacy, and the New York senator returned the favor, assuring the thousands of delegates at the annual policy forum of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that her Democratic rival would be a dependable ally in the White House.
"I know Senator Obama knows what is at stake here," Clinton said of her Senate colleague from Illinois, adding, "Let me be very clear: I know Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel."
Jewish Democratic insiders said the speeches not only signaled a rapprochement of sorts between the candidates but reflected the emergence of a wider, more aggressive party strategy for fending off Republican efforts to peel away Jewish votes and contributions.
A few years ago, many Democratic activists and lawmakers would have been content to stick with the line that both parties were equally strong on Israel-related issues. Now as Iran pushes ahead with its nuclear program, support remains low for the Iraq war and Israel continues to face Hamas rocket attacks, Jewish Democrats see an opening to rebut the GOP’s claim to be the party that’s best for Israel.
"This is a new approach," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant whose communications firm also does work for many Jewish organizations. "Two years ago many thought it would be difficult to persuade people that George W. Bush had not been good for Israel, even dangerous to try it. It’s not only a case that can be made now, it’s also true."
Rabinowitz said many Democrats feel emboldened to push that argument given the GOP’s harsh rhetoric about Obama and Israel. McCain, an Arizona senator, has portrayed Obama as a Hamas-supported candidate, and Bush delivered a speech at the Knesset last month that many observers viewed as an attempt to tag the Illinois Democrat as an appeaser.
In his speech Monday to AIPAC, McCain took direct aim at Obama, arguing that his plan for a phased U.S. pullout from Iraq would lead to the creation of a "potential terrorist sanctuary" that would profoundly "affect the security of the United States, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran."
In keeping with the increasingly popular Democratic approach, Obama fired back at the Republicans, painting them as advancing a reckless foreign policy that has hurt Israel.
"I don’t think any of us can be satisfied that America’s recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure," Obama said. "Hamas now controls Gaza. Hezbollah has tightened its grip on southern Lebanon and is flexing its muscles in Beirut. Because of the war in Iraq, Iran – which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq – is emboldened, and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States and Israel in the Middle East in a generation.
"Iraq is unstable, and al-Qaida has stepped up its recruitment. Israel’s quest for peace with its neighbors has stalled, despite the heavy burdens borne by the Israeli people. And America is more isolated in the region, reducing our strength and jeopardizing Israel’s safety."
"Senator McCain refuses to understand or acknowledge the failure of the policy that he would continue," he said. "I refuse to continue a policy that has made the United States and Israel less secure."
In a conference call immediately following the speech, McCain’s highest profile Jewish supporter, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), rejected Obama’s arguments, saying he was wrong to blame Iran’s resurgent power on the Iraq war.
"If Israel is in danger today, it is not because of American foreign policy," Lieberman told reporters. "It’s because Iran is a terrorist, expansionist state."
For most of the speech Obama voiced unabashed support for Israel. At one point, though, he did say that the Israelis could do more to ease Palestinian suffering and live up to prior commitments to refrain from new settlement construction. Obama also stressed the need for a two-state solution, adding that Israel must remain a Jewish state with secure borders.
Obama also sounded several notes more often associated with his hawkish Jewish critics: He insisted that Jerusalem must remain Israel’s undivided capital and stressed his willingness to resort to military force if stepped-up diplomatic efforts failed to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambition.
"I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," he said. "Everything."
Obama appeared to move toward Clinton on the issue of how to deal with Iran, as he argued for boycotting "firms associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard" and stating that the corps has rightly been labeled a "terrorist organization." He also appeared to hedge on what many observers understood as an openness to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As for Clinton, while at an earlier stage in the campaign she would have belittled Obama’s willingness to meet with top Iranian leaders, on Wednesday she stressed her criticisms of the Bush administration for its failure to adopt a more effective diplomatic approach.
In another sign of the two sides coming together to advance a united front on Israel, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) – a former Bill Clinton administration official who just endorsed Obama – said Hillary Clinton supported his decision to accompany Obama to a closed meeting Wednesday with top AIPAC leaders.
Though Clinton appeared to draw a warmer reaction, Obama received several standing ovations, including an impassioned one when he spoke of the Jewish religion’s commitment to social justice and the importance of forging strong ties between the Jewish and African-American communities.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a Clinton supporter who has said that Obama needs to do "repair" work in the Jewish community, praised the speech, saying it hit all the "right notes." Obama, he added, needs to make more speeches like that.
Norman Katz of Bloomfield, Mich., described Obama’s speech as "very inspiring," saying the Democratic candidate had the audience "in the palm of his hand." Katz said that although he had been a supporter of Clinton, he would vote for Obama in November.
Lisbeth Fried of Ann Arbor, Mich., a Clinton supporter who is "very disappointed" that the former first lady won’t be the Democratic nominee, called Obama "outstanding." Fried said it was the first time she had heard Obama speak and had not been skeptical about some of his positions.
"I believed a lot of the rumors that were flying," she said. "My mind was put to rest today."
Bonnie Gober of San Bernadino, Calif., was less enthusiastic. Gober said she was "glad to hear" Obama take a stance on issues of importance to Israel, but when asked if she would support him in November, she would say only, "I’ll vote Democratic."
Others were impressed but not swayed. Another Ann Arbor resident, Marvin Gerber, who identified himself as a Republican, said Obama’s speech was "electrifying" and proved he would be a "credible opponent" against McCain.
"It was a terrific speech, so polished," Gerber said. "He overpowers both McCain and Hillary. However, his policies will not make us strong and will not help Israel."
Gerber said he would not support Obama at the polls.
"I just don’t trust him," he said.
With reporting from JTA’s Mark Joffe and Uriel Heilman.