WASHINGTON (JTA) – As the presidential race came to a close, the McCain campaign ratcheted up its efforts to paint Barack Obama as a threat to Israel.
The major thrust involved new salvos revolving around a Palestinian-American academic and activist, Rashid Khalidi, who was friends with the Democratic nominee during their days as professors at the Univeristy of Chicago.
Both John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have played up the issue in recent days, and in an interview with CNN, McCain campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb accused Obama of having a “long track record of being around anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric.”
In addition, McCain’s new campaign surrogate, Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as "Joe the Plumber," jumped into the fray: At an Oct. 29 rally in Ohio, he agreed that a vote for Obama "is a vote for the death of Israel."
The latest attacks come on the heels of new polls showing that Obama significantly expanded his lead among Jewish voters since August and is now poised to match the totals recorded by previous Democratic nominees.
The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, dismissed the late attacks as "pure desperation, a Hail Mary." He said Republicans had been "counting on Jewish votes" in states such as Ohio and Florida, and "those hopes have been evaporating," so they decided to "throw the kitchen sink."
Wurzelbacher found himself on the receiving end of some tough questioning from a Fox News anchor about his claims about Obama and Israel. Similarly, Goldfarb was widely ridiculed after he refused to name anyone else that he would consider an anti-Semitic associate of Obama. Instead, Goldfarb kept insisting that CNN knew who he was talking about.
At the center of the Khalidi flap is Obama’s attendance at a 2003 farewell party for the Palestinian academic, who was headed to Columbia University to become director of the school’s Middle East Institute and the Edward Said professor of Arab studies.
The Los Angeles Times reported in April that the party featured the recitation of a poem by a Palestinian-American accusing the Israeli government of terrorism and sharply criticizing U.S. support of Israel. Another speaker likened “Zionist settlers on the West Bank” to Osama bin Laden, saying both had been “blinded by ideology,” according to the newspaper.
Obama also spoke at the party, saying that his conversations with Khalidi and his wife, Mona, over the years were "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.”
Obama and Khalidi became friends at the University of Chicago in the 1990s and as neighbors in Hyde Park. The Khalidis held a fund-raiser for Obama’s unsuccessful congressional bid before he went on to become a U.S. senator from Illinois.
In recent days, McCain and his campaign have demanded that the L.A. Times release a videotape of the party. The Times has refused, saying it promised its source it would not publicly show the tape.
McCain quipped that the newspaper would probably handle the situation differently had a tape emerged with the Republican nominee at a party with a neo-Nazi – a comment that Khalidi’s defenders interpreted as an unfair attack against the professor.
Palin in a speech last week pressed for the tape’s release, echoing an old claim – denied by Khalidi – that the professor is a former spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Khalidi is considered a moderate by Palestinians and many in the pro-Israel community. The Times article notes that he has called killing civilians a "war crime” and often has been critical of Palestinian leadership, although Khalidi has also long been critical of Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Some liberal observers have noted that earlier in the campaign, McCain expressed confidence in the peacemaking abilities of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s longtime No. 2 man in the PLO and the organization’s current chairman.
Others were quick to note that McCain has his own ties to Khalidi. The Arizona senator has been chairman of the International Republican Institute since 1993, an organization that "advances freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law." In 1993, the institute began providing support to the Center for Palestine Research and Studies — an organization co-founded by Khalidi that he has served on its board of directors from 1993 to 1998 — for conducting opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The McCain campaign has noted that a number of other organizations, including the U.S. government, funded Khalidi’s operation, and that McCain does not know the professor personally.
Goldfarb said the alleged ties to the PLO are not the issue.
“We’re not interested in Khalidi, we’re interested in Obama’s reactions” to the anti-Israel rhetoric, he said.
Goldfarb argued that a media organization should not be holding back something of “news value.”
It is unclear whether the tape includes any footage of Obama’s reactions to the more inflammatory speeches that night – Goldfarb said that’s why the the newspaper “should release it.”
Asked about Obama’s reactions to the speakers at the party, a campaign spokesman reiterated that the Democratic nominee does not agree with Khalidi about Israel or the Middle East.
“This is just another recycled, manufactured controversy from the McCain campaign to distract voters’ attention from John McCain’s lock-step support for George Bush’s economic policies,” said the Obama spokesman, Ben LeBolt. “Barack Obama has been clear and consistent on his support for Israel, and has been clear that Rashid Khalidi is not an adviser to him or his campaign and that he does not share Khalidi’s views.”
Obama himself, in an appearance at a Florida synagogue in May, acknowledged that he had a relationship with Khalidi but warned the audience to be “careful about guilt by association.”
"To pluck out one person who I know and who I’ve had a conversation with who has very different views than 900 of my friends, and then to suggest that somehow that shows that maybe I’m not sufficiently pro-Israel, I think is a very problematic stand to take," he said. "So we got to be careful about guilt by association.”
Dennis Ross, an Obama adviser and former U.S. peace negotiator, said it was silly to attack the Democratic nominee for his friendship with Khalidi.
"Because you know somebody," he told a Georgetown University forum about the Jewish vote, "this is supposed to be a reflection" on your beliefs?
More important for voters, Ross said, is that he – and not Khalidi – is a foreign policy adviser to Obama.
As for the overall attacks on Obama’s Israel record, Ross said the anti-Obama advertisements from the Republican Jewish Coalition reminded him of Arafat’s tactics: "You have to understand something about Arafat. He makes up facts, then he repeats the made-up facts, then he believes what he made up."
The RJC has defended its advertisements as completely truthful and offered to hold a debate with liberal critics of them.