AIPAC Barack Obama Israel Israel lobby Jerusalem Palestinians

Obama, AIPAC and why we need a Middle East peace lobby

Barack Obama had 7,000+ American Jews and non-Jewish friends of Israel eating out of his hand at the AIPAC Policy Conference yesterday morning. There was no political reason for him to disappoint Palestinians, the Arab world and the pro-Israel left by stating his commitment to an “undivided” Jerusalem. I have the highest hopes for this man, but his statement on Jerusalem was a major blunder that could easily have been avoided.

I have been coming to these AIPAC conferences over the years as an observer and as the Jewish peace camp’s equivalent of a Log Cabin Republican, believing that if you can’t get a seat at the power table with these people, at least you should be in the room and take their measure.

This one, like all the others, was a masterpiece of political theater. It was a combination of agit-prop worthy of Mao, a Veterans of Foreign Wars conclave and shmaltzy Yiddish theater.

One plenary session after another conveyed that it is 1938, it has always been 1938, the darkness is upon us, with footage of the Holocaust on giant screens, interspersed with scary stills of the Iranian president, scenes of terrorist bombings, Hamas rockets in mid-flight. The argument that Israel’s security was intertwined with America’s, that Israel is on the front line of our battle, was hammered home in seminars with military experts, in speeches from Members of Congress. It was conveyed in icons and totems, like the ubiquitous logo with an American and Israeli flag, and the tag line: “The American-Israel relationship: Built to Last.” And, amidst all the flagwaving and policy discussions, there were tear-jerkers, like the obligatory but deeply moving stories of Israelis who had built lives from the ashes.

But the most important political theater focused on the candidates. Before the conference, AIPAC sent emails and letters urging attendees to be respectful of all speakers. Throughout the proceedings, for three days, its stage managers did a masterful job of putting a damper on grumpy right wing protest, knowing that, in the past, strident hawks and settler supporters had booed Nancy Pelosi and Colin Powell (when he defended the Road Map) and a string of reasonable people stretching back to Secretary of State Jim Baker.

A staffer who led a small seminar on lobbying techniques told us that every speaker is a “guest in our house,” that any friend of Israel should be greeted as a friend of ours.

The worst thing, the very worst thing, that could happen to AIPAC would be a war between a presumptive presidential nominee and the self-appointed “pro-Israel” community. That is something the cabal-watchers who are obsessed with the attention paid by politicians to the American Jewish community fail to understand: AIPAC needs the candidates as much as they need AIPAC. The group needs access to every administration, lines of communication, friendly relations with mid- and upper-level staffers. It needs access not only to try to influence and monitor policy; it needs access because its high-level donors expect to be rewarded and honored with the chance to be in small rooms where administration officials listen –or pretend to listen—to them. So it would have been very foolish to annoy Barack Obama.

Before the session in which Obama and Hillary Clinton (and Congressional leaders from both parties) were to speak, screens in the center of the grand ballroom of the DC Convention Center displayed telling quotes from, fittingly enough, American icons, not rabbis:

“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins” –Benjamin Franklin


“Friendship is precious.” –Thomas Jefferson.

McCain, of course, had been the star of Act 1, laying down the gauntlet for his opponent by insulting Iran, challenging Obama’s security bona fides and weak-kneed willingness to talk to enemies. He got applause for every bit of red-meat rhetoric, more than a dozen ovations. More than half of the people who roared and got to their feet were Democrats and a large percentage are not going to vote for him. Some of them had been fans of the Oslo process. (American Jews, according to the old saw, live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans. Some Americans Jews think like Shimon Peres but cheer like Likudniks).

But in Act 2, Obama did what he had to do, and for the most part he did it very well. Even as he walked on eggshells, differentiated himself from McCain and outlined a reasonable approach to foreign policy, he gave them everything they needed and more: a sincere and heartfelt admiration and empathy for Israel, an assurance that his toughminded diplomacy did not mean placating Iran, a commitment to Israel’s “qualitative military edge.”

At one point, he even rushed, breathlessly, through a sentence about Israel’s obligations, one that was left out of the NY Times report on the speech and has gone almost unmentioned in the blogosphere. He bravely said that Israel could “advance the cause of peace” by taking steps to “ease the freedom of Palestinians, improve economic conditions” and “refrain from building settlements.”

That got no applause, but it didn’t matter, he already owned the crowd. They wanted to come away feeling, deep in their kishkes, that this man would protect Israel. He gave them what they wanted. And that is why all the Republicans in the room joined in the standing ovations. And why the stage managers breathed sighs of relief.

So there was no need to call for a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its “undivided” capital. If he had left out any reference to Jerusalem, no one would have noticed. He and his advisors cannot possibly believe that this should be a red line for Israel. Ehud Olmert doesn’t believe it. No Israeli or Palestinian who sincerely wants a two state solution believes it.

It will have no bearing on what happens if he is elected, because if the parties to the conflict want to divide Jerusalem, of course he will express delight.

But the foolish words escaped from his lips, in a scene broadcast throughout the world, and now he won’t be able to take them back. It is yet another discouraging signal to the Palestinian people, most of whom have understandably lost faith in the possibility of a negotiated settlement, even though they continue to endorse the idea.

It is yet another reason why alternative voices in the American Jewish community need to be heard. And it is another reason why there is an urgent need to change the political calculus that prompted Obama to believe that maximalist rhetoric about Jerusalem was necessary.

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