Beyond the Rhetoric: The Candidates and Israel
The Jewish Post scrutinizes candidates voting records, speeches, and associates
By Alana Goodman
Now that the 2008 general election has begun, the presumptive nominees are bombarding Jewish voters with promises for Israel’s future—many of them empty. Rhetoric aside, the actions, policy proposals, and associates of the candidates are crucial in understanding their true biases. So how do Barack Obama and John McCain really feel about Israel?
If voting records are any indication, then McCain and Obama would both be powerful allies of Israel. They have both co-sponsored bills with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), voted against Palestinian terrorism, and called for closer unity between the United States and Israel. Unfortunately, voting records do not always reveal true feelings. The majority of U.S. senators vote pro-Israel (even Sen. Robert Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan “Kleagle”, teamed up with AIPAC to co-sponsor a bill this year).
One advantage for McCain is his familiarity with both the country of Israel and the region. The 71 year old Arizona Senator has met with every Israeli prime minister since Menachem Begin, and has sent his representatives to speak with representatives of Syria and Iran. He has been close with Ehud Barak for over 30 years, knew Israeli president Ehud Olmert when he was still the mayor of Jerusalem, and even met with the leader of the Fatah party, Mahmoud Abbas.
McCain is also a regular at AIPAC’s annual conferences, and his most recent speech there drew admiration from droves of influential Jews across the nation. He vindicated Israel’s right to self-defense, noting that, “no nation in the world would allow its population to be attacked so incessantly, to be killed and intimidated so mercilessly, without responding. And the nation of Israel is no exception.”
The former POW also turned a sharp eye to the Iranian nuclear threat, detailing divestment plans, sanctions, and political pressure, while also keeping the possibility of physical force open in a worst-case scenario. He ridiculed Obama’s recent proposal of unconditional diplomacy with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying, “We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before. Yet it's 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.”
As Israeli newspaper Haaretz correspondent Shmuel Rosner writes, “When McCain makes such a statement, Israel believes him.” Through nearly 30 years in public office, McCain has proved himself a stubborn politician who means what he says– even if it makes him unpopular. His publicized fights with his own party over issues like immigration and campaign financing earned him the nickname “the maverick,” but his tough-talk on terrorism and Middle East policy could prove to be advantageous for Israel.
But McCain has also made embarrassing gaffes, like when he came under fire for telling Haaretz that he might appoint Brent Scowcroft, or James Baker as his Middle East peace envoy. Baker, a former Reagan and Bush Sr. staffer, is well-known for his anti-Israel bias and allegedly ranting to White House advisers, “F— the Jews. They didn’t vote for us anyway.”
Another McCain blunder came earlier this year when he sought and received an endorsement from Reverend John Hagee, a controversial pastor who once preached that Hitler was sent by God to kill the Jews. McCain eventually rejected Hagee’s endorsement, but only after nearly three months of mounting criticism.
However, many Jews trust McCain to defend Israel because of his strong personal relationships with pillars of the pro-Israel community, such as long-time friend Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who crossed party lines to endorse McCain.
And apparently support for Israel is a family affair for McCain, whose brother Joe McCain, a former reporter, is a vocal champion for Israeli and Jewish causes. Joe, a self-proclaimed “Judeophile” mirrored the matter-of-fact style of his older brother in a 2002 article, writing, “the Jews are never going quietly again. Never. And if the world doesn't come to understand that, then millions of Arabs are going to die. It's as simple as that.”
Democratic candidate Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, has a knack for saying what’s on people’s minds, and his recent speech at an AIPAC convention was no exception. “Let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening,” the fresh-faced senator quipped, making light of the uneasiness his candidacy has caused some in the Jewish community. The Chicago-based politician is on a mission to change this negative perception of him– which is partially fueled by fallacious internet rumors that claim he is secretly a radical Muslim.
Muslim he is not, and since his election into the U.S. senate four years ago, Obama has had a strong record of supporting Israel. He has co-sponsored five bills with AIPAC since 2007, including the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act. He has written legislation calling for divestment from Iran, and this January he wrote a letter to the United Nations urging the Security Council to condemn rocket attacks against Israel
However, associates of Obama, such as journalist Ali Abunimah, have expressed puzzlement over what they call an “about face” on Israeli policy. In an interview earlier this year, Abunimah told the radio show Democracy Now that before Obama’s senatorial campaign he was known to attend and speak at pro-Palestinian events. “I remember personally introducing [Obama] onstage in 1999, when we had a major community fund-raiser for the community center in Deheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. And that’s just one example of how Barack Obama used to be very comfortable speaking up for and being associated with Palestinian rights and opposing the Israeli occupation,” he said in the interview.
Some of Obama’s older speeches have also echoed the rhetoric of pro-Palestinian activists, and he has raised eyebrows by referring to a “cycle of violence” in the Middle East, and suggesting that the real enemy of Israel is “not just Hezbollah, it's not just Hamas, it's also cynicism.”
But recently Obama’s speeches have changed their tone, becoming hard to decipher from speeches made by hawkish Israel supporters such as President George W. Bush. While meeting with AIPAC this June, Obama had Zionists kvelling with his vow to keep Jerusalem undivided and his promise to “bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.” He also denounced Iranian threats to Israel, saying “the danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”
Obama dismissed McCain’s foreign policy proposals, saying that McCain “offers a false choice: stay the course in Iraq, or cede the region to Iran. I reject this logic because there is a better way.” Obama outlined his plan for the region, saying it includes “aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions.”
The candidate’s hard-hitting remarks to AIPAC about Jerusalem caused outrage in the Palestinian community, and since then his campaign has clarified to the Jerusalem Post that Obama believes “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties” as part of “an agreement they can both live with.” Alan Katz, expert on Israeli politics and author of Fighting Back—Letters from Diaspora, calls this shift in opinion “more than a little disingenuous.”
“Barack Obama sums up his loyalties better than I can,” Katz continues. “In his own book, Audacity of Hope, he writes ‘I will stand with the Muslims should the political wind shift in an ugly direction.’”
Adding to the puzzle, some pro-Israel organizations also question the depth of the Illinois senator’s sincerity, despite his recent vigorous support of Israel. Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told the Jewish Post, “With respect to Obama, we are concerned that he recently states Hamas and Hezbollah have legitimate claims...we are concerned that every foreign policy advisor he has had is a harsh critic of Israel. We are concerned that for 20 years his pastor made numerous anti-Israel speeches...and Obama remaining in that Church makes us believe he was comfortable.”
One of the foreign policy advisors who Klein is referring to may be Robert Malley, the former Special Assistant to Arab-Israeli affairs for President Clinton, who worked as Senator Obama’s Middle East policy advisor until it was revealed this May that he held regular meetings with Hamas.
Another troubling associate of Obama is Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, who Klein calls “viciously anti-Israel.”
Khalidi, a former PLO press director when the group was still a terrorist organization, befriended Obama when they taught together at the University of Chicago. When asked about the friendship recently, Obama told a Boca Raton synagogue that Khalidi was simply “one person who I know and who I’ve had a conversation with.”
A very different story was told at a 2003 farewell party for Khalidi at the University of Chicago. During a speech Obama fondly recalled dinnertime conversations at the Khalidi’s home, calling the talks with the terrorist-sympathizer “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases...It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation -- a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table, [but around] this entire world.”
Something else that may haunt Obama in the coming months is his support for the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), a group that has referred to Israel’s existence as a “catastrophe,” and was founded by Khalidi and his wife Mona. During Obama’s time as director of a non-profit group called the Woods Foundation, he granted $75,000 to the AAAN– beginning only a year after Khalidi held a fund-raiser for Obama’s failed bid for a U.S. House of Representatives seat.
Klein is also concerned about Obama’s participation in the Million Man March and his connection to controversial Muslim activist Louis Farrakhan. “It is troubling that [the Obama’s] have a relationship with one of the most deeply anti-Semitic families in the country,” he said. Recently Obama vehemently denounced Farrakhan, an alleged anti-Semite who once referred to Judaism as “gutter religion.” Adding to the controversy is a photograph of Obama’s wife Michelle posing with Louis Farrakhan’s wife at a 2004 event, which has recently begun circling the blogosphere. The photo was published in Jet magazine dated July 26, 2004.
A spokesperson for Senator and Mrs. Obama reached by the Jewish Post had initially promised to provide comment, but later declined comment, becoming defensive and agitated when asked about the photograph. Ah, if only we could mention things said “off the record”.
However, Jews can take solace in the fact that Obama does have some staunchly pro-Israel supporters. U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida House Member, recently wrote an e-mail to Jewish leaders, saying “what has always struck me about Senator Obama – and this is one of the reasons that I have endorsed his candidacy for president – is that a love for Israel and a desire to keep the Jewish people secure is evident not just in his work, but also in his heart.”