In what might have been his most hawkish speech to date on the Middle East, Barack Obama sought to shore up his shaky support in the Jewish community with a security-first, diplomacy-second blueprint. Compared to the speech given on the same stage just over 24 hours earlier by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Obama clearly positioned himself as the stronger champion of Israel.
What looked like a home run, though, likely will not be, as the candidate sounded a decidedly different note the very next day. Worse, it’s not the only set of mixed signals sent by Obama.
Speaking to the 7,000-strong crowd at the annual conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in DC, Obama gave an important nod to Israel’s need for defensible borders. Rice did not.
Obama made no overt distinctions between Hamas and Fatah, and he even appeared to take a jab at the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority government of President Mahmoud Abbas in attacking “government-funded textbooks filled with hatred toward Jews.” Rice, by contrast, lavished praise on Abbas.
Then there was Obama’s headline-making proclamation that Jerusalem “must” remain the “undivided” capital of the Jewish state. No such reference from the secretary of state.
As people spilled out of the packed hall, Obama had gained many newfound admirers, and he had reassured plenty of others. Merely a day later, though, he undid much of the goodwill he had accumulated.
Most damaging was the rather curious explanation about what he had actually meant by “undivided.” Anyone who follows Israeli politics understands “undivided” to mean that the eastern half of Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control and not serve as the Palestinian capital.
Apparently not Obama, however. An unnamed Obama advisor told the Agence France Press that Obama’s definition of “undivided” was strictly literal, that the holy city is “not going to be divided by barbed wire.”
If that was what the candidate had intended to convey, he failed miserably. In dozens of conversations immediately afterward either overheard by or involving this columnist, not one discussed Obama’s desire to avoid barbed wire fencing from running through Jerusalem.
Of all the knocks against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, lack of clarity in carefully crafted speeches is not one of them. No wonder many cynics believe that Obama was pulling the equivalent of the old newspaper stunt of running the allegation on the front page, but burying the correction on page 32 the next day.
This latest flap only continues the confusion many in the Jewish community have about Obama. Several AIPAC conference attendees who otherwise like Obama cited as deeply troubling the reporting of blogger Ed Lasky about some of Obama’s advisors. Two in particular understandably cause angst: former national security advisor for Jimmy Carter Zbigniew Brzezinski and retired four-star general Merrill “Tony” McPeak.
Both have made unusually brazen claims about undue Jewish political influence. Brzezinski, who has no formal role but has been praised by Obama and has been asked to stand at the candidate’s side in public, last month accused “some people in the Jewish community” of being “McCarthy-ite.” He had made similar comments last year, only to be later embraced by Obama. McPeak in a 2003 interview appeared to lay blame for lack of peace in the Middle East on people who “vote here in favor of Israel” in “New York City” and “Miami.” Presumably knowing of these comments, Obama selected McPeak to serve as a military advisor and national campaign co-chair.
To his credit, though, Obama counts among his early backers staunch supporters of the Jewish state, such as Reps. Robert Wexler (D-FL) and Steve Rothman (D-NJ). On his staff, Middle East advisor Eric Lynn is solid and smart. And highly regarded pro-Israel advocates from Chicago who ostensibly have kicked Obama’s tires, such as AIPAC Treasurer Lee Rosenberg, maintain that a President Obama would be true friend of the Jewish state.
With the strong historical Democratic tilt of the Jewish community, Obama is still the odds-on favorite to capture the strong majority of those votes. But since McCain is not ceding that ground to him, Obama cannot rest.
Top on Obama’s to do list should be distancing himself from the likes of Messrs. Brzezinski and McPeak and other Jimmy Carter acolytes. Beyond that, Obama needs to be more careful—and more consistent—in discussing the Middle East, or otherwise he could find the Jewish community more “divided” than he’d like it to be.