By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Now, here's a change we can believe in.
A mere 12 hours after claiming the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday -- and changed himself into an Israel hard-liner.
He promised $30 billion in military assistance for Israel. He declared that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force has "rightly been labeled a terrorist organization." He used terms such as "false prophets of extremism" and "corrupt" while discussing Palestinians. And he promised that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."
Vowing to stop Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon, the newly minted nominee apparent added: "I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel. Do not be confused."
How could they be confused? As a pandering performance, it was the full Monty by a candidate who, during the primary, had positioned himself to Hillary Clinton's left on matters such as Iran. Yesterday, Obama, who has generally declined to wear an American-flag lapel pin, wore a joint U.S.-Israeli pin, and even tried a Hebrew phrase on the crowd.
Obama even outdid President Bush in his pro-Israel sentiments. On the very day that Obama vowed to protect Jerusalem as Israel's capital -- drawing a furious denunciation from the Palestinian Authority -- Bush announced that he was suspending a move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
The transformation -- mostly in tone, but occasionally in substance -- might qualify as what Obama likes to call the same old Washington "okey-doke." And the candidate is uncomfortable with such things, as evidenced by his struggle to pronounce the name of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It came out as "Mahmoud . . . Ahmin -- Ahmeninejad."
The crowd of 7,000 loved him anyway. He received 13 standing ovations, more than twice the number granted the next act, Hillary Clinton. The AIPAC faithful gushed about his performance as they left the Washington Convention Center. "He doesn't even read! He has an extemporaneous delivery," one woman recounted, evidently unaware that Obama had read every word from a teleprompter.
Obama has his work cut out for him with American Jews, a crucial Democratic constituency that had largely favored Clinton. On the campaign trail, he routinely scolded Clinton for supporting a hard-line anti-Iran resolution that labeled the Revolutionary Guard terrorists. He also vowed to meet with figures such as Ahmadinejad during his first year in office, without precondition, and he voiced sympathy on the campaign trail for the Palestinian cause.
But the AIPAC crowd was ready to forgive now that Obama has the nomination. They stood to applaud for more than a minute when he entered the cavernous hall to music that could have been for a Superman movie soundtrack. He hugged and kissed his way across the dais.
He got right to the "provocative e-mails" that have been spreading lies about him being a Muslim plant and other such things. "Let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty scary," the candidate said, reassuring the crowd that he is "a true friend of Israel."
Indeed, he almost sounded as if he were Jewish. "I had grown up without a sense of roots," he explained. "I understood the Zionist idea, that there is always a homeland at the center of our story."
Somewhere off stage, an AIPAC hand brightened the lights over the audience when it appeared a standing ovation was building -- and Obama presented the audience with many such opportunities.
He invoked the Holocaust ("Never again!"), pledged to "never compromise" Israel's security, and scolded those who propose "abandoning a stalwart ally." He offered more military equipment and missile defense for Israel, vowed to "isolate Hamas," and threatened to "do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. . . . Everything."
The AIPAC crowd grew still when Obama slipped in mentions of his disagreements with their policies. But he was careful to revise and extend his controversial thoughts.
"Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking," he said of his talk-with-Ahmadinejad position. "I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leaders at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States."
His criticism of the Iraq war also produced relative quiet in the room, as did his call for a "contiguous and cohesive" Palestinian state, and for Israel to "refrain from building new settlements, as it agreed to do."
But Obama's hard line found support from an unexpected source -- the woman who followed him to the microphone and who still hasn't conceded the nomination. "I know that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel," Clinton vouched.
This backing earned Clinton a lights-on standing ovation. But overall, the reception was relatively tepid for Clinton, and understandably so: She was no longer a viable candidate, and the winner of the nomination was sounding like Bibi Netanyahu as he spoke about preserving Israel's "qualitative military advantage" to thwart "any threat from Gaza to Tehran."
Israel's military action last year "was entirely justified," Obama said, to knock out Syria's "weapons of mass destruction" program. "The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat," he added.
The Superman music soon returned, and the man with the Star of David on his lapel left the dais in a shower of hugs and kisses from the AIPAC officers.