Events transpired to transform a potentially awkward speech by Barack Obama to the AIPAC national policy conference into a candidate coming-out party, as he won the Democratic nomination the day before. AIPAC’s leadership had been so concerned they sent out a blanket e mail to members reminding them that they shouldn’t give a raspberry to any of the Democratic candidates as happened to Nancy Pelosi last year.
Obama needn’t have been concerned as his victory sobered up the audience, forcing them to contemplate the uncomfortable prospect that by November he might be President-elect Obama. He was received warmly, though nowhere near as riotously enthusiastically as McCain the day before. He did a delicate dance in this speech. He was appealing to a constituency he knew he needed to win in November. So he had to make nice to the audience and appeal to their interests and even prejudices. He knew too, many in the audience would be predisposed against him. So he tried to make light of the rampant Obamaphobia among many of his listeners. But he also wanted to send a message to them that he would not be the rubber stamp that the current president has been for Israel. He wanted them to know that he had spine and principles, from which they might infer that he and they would differ from time to time on what is best for Israel.
Now, as to Obama’s speech–it was a mixed bag. It was very much what I call a template speech that features stock positions known to be popular among the target audience. In that sense, it was a disappointment. In some senses, the speech went beyond where it needed to go in pandering to its audience’s prejudices. But, as in everything Obama does, even when he’s being conventional he surprises and challenges.
What most encouraged me was Obama gave as good as he got on Iran. He sounded muscular and assertive in taking it to McCain on the question of whether pursuit of diplomacy in resolving the Iranian conflict represents weakness. In this, he reminded me of those wonderful Tom Petty lyrics: “I won’t back down.”
Obama advocated a two-state solution and even called for a “contiguous, cohesive” Palestinian state, which are code words critical of Israel’s policy of turning the West Bank into isolated Bantustans through the use of settlements, apartheid roads and the Separation Wall. The nominee also spoke against the building of new settlements, something neither new nor surprising. But if he becomes candidate and puts muscle into the statement, it will mean something.
The most disappointing statement was this throwaway line:
Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.
It’s standard operating rhetoric out of presidential campaigns. But what disappointed me was that he needn’t have mentioned the second half of the statement at all. Saying Jerusalem must remain undivided was throwing red meat to the pro-Israel crowd. Everyone knows that ultimately Israel will be shared by two peoples. The city will certainly become Israel’s capital as it will become Palestine’s. The neighborhoods will be divided reflecting their ethnicity. Obama’s unequivocal endorsement of a far-right Israeli position only paints him into a corner should he win the presidency and actually have to preside over the “division” of Jerusalem.
Then Obama made a few mistakes that are uncharacteristic of his otherwise stellar presentations. At one point, he called the Green Line the “blue line:”
I spoke to Israeli troops who faced daily threats as they maintained security near the blue line.
At another point, he confused divestment with boycott. This, of course, is a confusion deliberately encouraged by groups like AIPAC which seek to paint the divestment movement as virtually the same as the boycott movement:
I was interested to see Senator McCain propose divestment as a source of leverage, not the bigoted divestment that has sought to punish Israeli scientists and academics, but divestment targeted at the Iranian regime.
Apparently, Dan Shapiro and the rest of Obama’s Jewish advisors don’t understand that the academic BOYCOTT would punish Israel’s scientists and academics. The Methodist divestment campaign would do no such thing. Instead, it would punish American companies like Caterpillar and Motorola, whose products are used to bolster the Israeli Occupation. Divestment and boycott are different things. Divestment, in my opinion, is a calibrated and cautious approach to the issue. Boycotts are sledgehammers in comparison. Obama should keep that in mind.
Finally, Obama did a deep disservice to himself by repeating McCain’s benighted reference to Meir Kahane’s slogan, Never Again! The racist rabbi must be smiling from the Beyond to know that his inflammatory rhetoric has captured the minds of both a Republican AND Democratic presidential candidate. The only thing to be said in Obama’s favor was that his use of the term was confined only to the Holocaust itself; while McCain wielded the slogan as a cudgel to promise Iran annihilation should it attempt genocide against Israel. I hope a presidential never again will exploit Kahane’s “Never Again!”
And I buried the lede: some people get religion. Well, Barack’s got “tikkun.” He’s discovered the power of tikun olam:
…There is a commitment embedded in the Jewish faith and tradition to freedom and fairness, to social justice and equal opportunity, to tikkun olam, the obligation to repair this world.
Hope it makes Michael Lerner proud. I know it made me proud.
Richard Witty says
I wasn’t there. I haven’t read a full transcript.
Reading the reports from multiple sources, NY Times, Haaretz, The Nation, Mondoweiss is an interesting exercise. Everybody has their pet criteria for trust.
The commitment to universal dignity that Obama has expressed consistently, that INCLUDES Israeli valid concerns and Palestinian valid concerns in its math and criteria, give me great hope.
I like that he regards the existing friendship (more than friendship) between many Americans and Israelis as primary, and does not yeild an actual relationship to a theoretical or abstracted one. I like that implicit in his message is the distinction of applying the universal principles in existing relationships rather than arbitrarily imposing the principles in a more punitive approach.
Applying vs imposing. Engagement vs condemnation.
“I spoke to Israeli troops who faced daily threats as they maintained security near the blue line.”
likely he was talking about the border w/Lebanon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Line_(Lebanon)
Rupa Shah says
Will “REAL” Mr Obama please stand up?!
Tracy Allen says
Thank you for your very thoughtful perspective. My husband and I have been Obama supporters for some time now, predominantly because he gave us hope that he would approach the Palestinian-Israeli issue in a new way, rather than continue the “pander to AIPAC” approach we have seen for the last two administrations.
When I read Senator Obama’s statement on Jerusalem, I was so disappointed, I nearly cried.
Unlike you, I am not confident that Jerusalem will avoid becoming the sole property of Israel; however, Jersusalem is a significant bargaining tool for the Palestinians, and by making the broad statement that it should be undivided and the capital of Israel renders any peace negotiations moot.
Erekat’s comments on the speech: “What really disppoints me is that someone like Barack Obama, who runs a campaign on the theme of change – when it comes to Aipac and what’s needed to be said differently about the Palestinian state, he fails.”
“I say to Obama … please stop being more Israeli than the Israelis themselves, leave the Israelis and Palestinians alone to make decisions required for peace.”
“He was received warmly, though nowhere near as riotously enthusiastically as McCain the day before.”
I presume you weren’t in attendance, because that’s just not true. If anyone was received more enthusiastically, it was Obama. Granted he did have more applause lines in his speech, but he got more standing ovations, a longer ovation at the end of his speech and his remarks about the black-Jewish relationship and Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner got an ovation dwarfing anything McCain got. He even got some applause (mostly from students) for lines about a two-state solution that were greeted with silence when Rice and Olmert said similar things.
The idea behind an academic boycott of Israel is not to punish Israel’s scientists and academics. The idea is to send a message, the only message available as long as the government fail to address the issue of Israel’s violations of international law.
I refuse to sit beside an Israeli doctor at a medical conference unless he has spoken up against the inhumane treatment of Palestinian patients and women giving birth to stillborn babies at checkpoints on the West bank
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Richard Silverstein says
@Daga1: I feel ambivalent about the boycott though I don’t oppose it. As I wrote I think it takes a sledgehammer approach. For example, how do you or anyone else know whether the Israeli scientist sitting next to you HAS opposed the Occupation or done his or her share to help Palestinians in need of medical services? The boycott tends to lump people together as a class & not allow for distinctions. Some Israelis have acted courageously and some have been “good Germans” & gone along w. the national consensus. We need to reward the good & create consequences for the bad. A boycott tends to treat everyone the same & judge them guilty unless/until they can prove themselves innocent.
Richard Silverstein says
Thanks Orgo for that note about the Blue Line on the Israel-Lebanon border. I’d never heard that term before. Maybe Obama meant that. Though the term would be so unknown to his audience that he should have explained what border it referred to.
True. Such actions will always have some “collateral damage” and cause problems for academics who are critical to Israel’ policy vis a vis the Palestinians, but they might also make it easier to voice opposition when they feel international support.
Ilan Pappe is one of the most influential “new historians” here
is his explanation why he supports academic boycott;
In addition you have inside Israel ICAHD , refusnicks, Machsom Watch, Whistleblowers and countless others
. who’s work would be much easier if they had international support.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Obama’s remark’s re Jerusalem: “This is the worst thing to happen to us since 1967…He has given ammunition to extremists across the region.”
I believe if Obama becomes president he will be worse for Palestine than McCain. Why? Because Obama has to lean over backwards to assure the Zionist part of the electorate that he is sufficiently pro-Israel. McCain has nothing to prove. Everybody knows he is.
In his AIPAC speech, Obama has already made a sharp right turn re Iran. Look for more of the same in the coming months. I share the fears of the Palestinians.
Readers of Richard’s blog might also be interested in this, discovered via Philip Weiss’s blog: Dana Milbank on Obama’s AIPAC speech- pretty good, esp coming from Milbank:
“As a pandering performance, it was the full Monty”
One curious note:
wonder if Obama’s Jerusalem remark was deliberately made to coincide with the June 2nd passage in the Israeli Parliament of a bill to consider the city of Jerusalem as capital of Israel all the Jews world wide.
“The bill was submitted by the right wing Israeli National Religious party to amend the Basic law which considers Jerusalem as capital of Israel. The bill passed in the ruling coalition with a majority of 58 to 12.”
Bernard Avishai claims here that:
Do you think he makes a valid argument with “undivided” vs. “united”?