Sunday, June 1st, 2008
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) signaled an aggressive effort to win the pro-Israel vote in November with a stingingly partisan speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference on Monday.
Breaking with a tradition generally observed by AIPAC keynoters, McCain attacked Sen. Barack Obama by name for his positions on Iran and the Iraq war.
McCain warmed up a friendly crowd by indirectly criticizing Obama’s offer to meet with Iranian leaders.
“We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it was some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of,” McCain said derisively. “Yet it is hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another.”
Instead of “unconditional” talks, McCain called for a regimen of expanded and tightened sanctions and divestment — led by the United States if the United Nations refuses to get tougher with Teheran.
In what sometimes sounded more like a stump speech than a policy address, McCain then attacked Obama directly, arguing that the Illinois senator opposed a McCain-cosponsored bill calling for the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.
The Obama campaign fired back quickly, saying that Obama was a longtime supporter of making the designation, and had offered his own bill on the subject – but that he opposed McCain’s measure because it included language demanding continuing high levels of U.S. troops in Iraq.
McCain also offered a robust defense of U.S. policy in Iraq, citing “hard-won progress” in the war and insisting Obama’s plan for a phased withdrawal of troops would “surely result in a catastrophe” for this country and Israel, and that it would “invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including an emboldened Iran.”
That earned him a strong ovation from the AIPAC crowd even though polls show a strong majority of American Jews have opposed the Iraq war from the outset.
In their quick reply, Obama campaign officials again signaled that they are not afraid to take the Iraq war issue to Jewish voters.
“John McCain stubbornly insists on continuing a dangerous and failed foreign policy that has clearly made the United States and Israel less secure,” an Obama spokesman said on Monday. “The war in Iraq that John McCain supported and promises to continue indefinitely has done more to dramatically strengthen and embolden Iran than anything in a generation.”
McCain also commiserated with the besieged residents of Sderot and the families of Israel’s kidnapped soldiers.
McCain’s speechwriters proved they knew their audience at AIPAC; the candidate attacked Hamas and Hezbollah, invoked the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and praised former President Harry Truman for recognizing the new state of Israel – all touchstones for politicians eager to impress AIPACers.
He also praised Sen. Joe Lieberman, the former Democrat who is now a top McCain supporter, as a camera zoomed in on the Connecticut lawmaker – who was sitting next to another Jewish icon, former refusnik Natan Sharansky.
McCain tiptoed around current Israel-Palestinian peace efforts.
“Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are engaged in talks that all of us hope will yield progress toward peace,” he said. “Yet while we encourage this process, we must also ensure that Israel’s people can live in safety until there is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace. A peace process that places faith in terrorists can never end in peace.”
But he offered no hint of how his policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace might differ from that of the man he hopes to succeed, President George W. Bush.
Several observers said it was a speech well tailored to the AIPAC audience, although it contained elements of political risk.
“What the speech signaled to me is that McCain is serious about going after the ‘Israel-focused’ Jewish vote,” said a longtime Jewish activist who attended the AIPAC session. “He struck themes that will be popular with that group, and I expect he will do better with them than recent Republican nominees. But the majority of the Jewish vote is not Israel focused, and I think he runs a real risk with those people by using the Iraq argument.”
There was also grumbling from Obama supporters – many wearing Hebrew language Obama pins – about the overt partisanship of McCain’s speech.