Obama at AIPAC: Mission Accomplished?

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

James Besser in Washington

Several Barack Obama supporters said earlier in the week that today’s speech at AIPAC would be the critical moment in his effort to keep Jewish voters on the Democratic reservation in November.

They must be kvelling now that the speech is over. A pro-Israel group whose leaders feared a less-than-friendly reception gave Obama one of the most enthusiastic receptions of the three-day conference.

There were moments in the speech when the applause were less than overwhelming – when he said “As president, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state living side- by-side in peace and security,” for example, and when he laid out his goal of using dialogue, along with sanctions and the possibility of military action if all else fails, to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But even in those cases, there was robust applause and a lack of any audible negative reaction.

Obama set out to convince skeptics in the pro-Israel world that his commitment to Israel is genuine, not a political ploy. Only time will tell if he succeeded, but he clearly impressed an audience accustomed to hearing from top politicians.

His plea for a renewed black-Jewish coalition and his insistence that such an alliance include support for Israel was one of the most powerful oratorical moments in recent AIPAC history.

“I will never forget that I would not be standing here today if it weren’t for the commitment that was made not only in the African-American community, but also in the Jewish-American community,” he said. “In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish- and African- Americans have stood shoulder-to-shoulder…Their legacy is our inheritance. We must not allow the relationship between Jews and African-Americans to suffer. This is a bond that must be strengthened. Together, we can rededicate ourselves to end prejudice and combat hatred in all its form. Together, we can renew our commitment to justice. Together, we can join our voices together and, in doing so, even the mightiest of walls fall down.”

And then he added this: “That work must include a shared commitment to Israel.”

The rafters shook in response.

“He hit all the right notes,” said a longtime Jewish leader who said he is rarely impressed by speeches. “Will it convince everybody who worries that he’s not pro-Israel enough? I doubt it. But this was a very positive reaction in a venue where he was expected to have trouble. It was a very strong performance.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton followed Obama, and her status as runner-up in a contest that is now essentially over was evident in the large number of delegates who left before her speech to get a jump on the buses leaving for Capitol Hill.

But Clinton did a mitzvah for her rival when she said “Let me be very clear; I know Sen. Obama would be a good friend to Israel.”

Sen. John McCain, his GOP rival, took some hits from some AIPACers for using his keynote address to lash out at Obama. But the Democrat responded in kind. So any violation of AIPAC tradition on that score was completely bipartisan.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.