Obama Pivots Away From Dovish Past

7 March 2007


Chicago — Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s maiden speech to the pro-Israel lobby last week saw a man described by early supporters as an ardent dove on Israel take flight as a bird of considerably more hawkish mien.

Obama, Illinois’ Democratic junior senator, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last Friday that he was committed, above all else, to “peace through security” for the Jewish state.

It was a phrase that appeared with variations repeatedly throughout the 30-minute speech, delivered according to many in attendance in a stilted monotone curiously devoid of passion. The more venerable formulation “land for peace” was nowhere to be found. Absent, too, were any references to “settlements,” “occupation” or “territorial compromise” in a talk before a hometown Chicago audience of some 800 sponsored by the pro-Israel lobby’s Midwest region.

While not surprising for a talk before the pro-Israel lobby — where such terms are usually few and far between — some found it surprising for a candidate known not too long ago to some as an unabashed dove.

“He was on the line of Peace Now,” said Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, of KAM Isaiah Israel, who lives across the street from Obama in the University of Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, one of the country’s most liberal electoral districts. “He was a moderate peacenik.”

Rabbi Wolf, himself a longtime dove, said that today Obama is “very, very cautious — with AIPAC, excessively cautious.”

Some with dovish views took comfort that at the end of a speech emphasizing the multiple threats facing Israel, Obama spoke of the importance of more active U.S. diplomacy to help Israelis and Palestinians “fulfill their national goals: two states living side by side in peace and security.” He spoke also of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s “vision to reach out to longtime enemies” and former leader Ariel Sharon’s “determination to lead Israel out of Gaza.” Israelis were prepared to make “further sacrifices” for peace, he said, without going into further detail.

But Obama, who has rocketed from an obscure state senator to a presidential candidate in little over two years, was until recently known to those involved in Middle East issues in his Hyde Park base on Chicago’s South Side as a man of considerably bolder views.

Despite his strict avoidance of details on what it will take to make progress toward peace, said Rabbi Wolf, “He has a lot to say about that. He’s thought about it.”

Ali Abunimah, a Hyde Park Palestinian-American activist, said that until a few years ago, Obama was “quite frank that the U.S. needed to be more evenhanded, that it leaned too much toward Israel.” It was vivid in his memory, said Abunimah, because “these were the kind of statements I’d never heard from a U.S. politician who seemed like he was going somewhere rather than at the end of his career.”

In 2000, Abunimah recalled, Professor Rashid Khalidi, a leading Palestinian American advocate for a two-state solution and harsh critic of Israel, held a fundraiser in his home for Obama, embarked then on an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the House of Representatives. “He came with his wife,” Abunimah said. “That’s where I had a chance to really talk to him. It was an intimate setting. He convinced me he was very aware of the issues [and] critical of U.S. bias toward Israel and lack of sensitivity to Arabs. … He was very supportive of U.S. pressure on Israel.”

Khalidi, now the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and head of that school’s Middle East Institute, declined to comment on Abunimah’s recollections. But in an interview in Tuesday’s Daily News, he said he hosted the fundraiser because he and Obama were friends while the two lived in Chicago. “He never came to us and said he would do anything in terms of Palestinians,” Khalidi told the paper.

Nevertheless, one Hyde Park source close to Obama, speaking only on condition of anonymity, recalled, “He often expressed general sympathy for the Palestinians — though I don’t recall him ever saying anything publicly.”

Asked to comment on these recollections of his views, a spokesperson for Obama’s campaign did not challenge them, saying only: “The speech is a clear articulation of his positions related to Israel.”

At the AIPAC event, Obama talked in detail about his first trip to Israel, in January of last year. Traveling with several prominent Chicago Jewish activists, Obama saw a house in Kiryat Shmona, near the Lebanese border, that had been hit by a Katyusha rocket fired by Hezbollah, the radical Shiite group based in South Lebanon.

“The family who lived [there] was lucky to be alive,” he said. “It is an experience I keep close to my heart … Too many others have seen the same kind of destruction, have lost their loved ones to suicide bombers and live in fear when the next attack might hit.”

Six months after his visit, Obama noted, “Hezbollah launched 4,000 rocket attacks just like the one that destroyed the home in Kiryat Shmona and kidnapped Israeli service members.” The rockets killed 39 Israeli civilians. An additional 120 Israelis died in combat during the war Israel launched in response to the kidnappings.

As he did last summer, Obama defended Israel’s bombing of targets throughout Lebanon during last summer’s war, bombing widely criticized elsewhere for hitting many civilians and demolishing civilian infrastructure sites. AP estimates 1,035 to 1,191 Lebanese died during the war, of which 250 were Hezbollah fighters.

“When Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself,” said Obama. … “Hezbollah attacked Israel. By using Lebanon as an outpost for terrorism, and innocent people as shields, Hezbollah has also engulfed that entire nation in violence and conflict, and threatened the fledgling movement for democracy there.”

Obama also warned of the danger Israel faces from Iran’s drive to develop a technical capability that would enable it to develop nuclear arms. Noting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the reality of the Holocaust and declared wish for Israel’s elimination, Obama said, “His words contain a chilling echo of some of the world’s most despicable and tragic history.”

At the same time, he de-emphasized a military solution to the problem. “While we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means,” he said. Obama advocated direct talks and “tough-minded diplomacy” with both Iran and Syria — an approach the Bush administration has rejected. It has recently, however, agreed to attend a meeting about the crisis in Iraq that those two countries will also attend.

Obama said the administration had actually empowered Iran by its invasion of Iraq, noting, “I opposed this war from the beginning.” He advocated a “phased redeployment” of U.S. troops out of Iraq, to be completed by March 2008. A “limited number” of troops should remain to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven, he added.

Obama supported Israel’s refusal to conduct peace talks with the Palestinian Authority government controlled by Hamas, a group responsible for terrorist attacks that denies Israel’s right to exist. A recent unity agreement between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — “a Palestinian leader I believe is committed to peace” — still failed to satisfy the international community’s conditions for ending the Hamas government’s international isolation, he said.

“We should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis,” he said.

But in a seemingly oblique criticism of the administration’s reported opposition to any Israeli response to entreaties by Syria to restart peace negotiations, Obama said, “No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”

Audience members offered varying views of whether Obama had met the bar for their support.

“I found it a little uninspired,” said Amy Rashkow, an AIPAC member who works for American Friends of Magen David Adom. “He said the right things [but] delivered it without the panache for which he’s known.”

Rashkow and others said they found Obama’s delivery stilted and lacking emotion, even when they agreed with the words he was reading. He sometimes seemed to trip over his text, as if reading it for the first time.

“Look at the comparison for him the next day in Selma,” she said, referring to a speech Obama gave there to mark the 40th anniversary of a famed civil rights protest there. “That was typical Obama.”

But Alan Mesh, another AIPAC member, said that even though “he was not able to articulate passion … I was very glad to hear him speak his support for Israel. He talked about his first-hand experience being there. You could tell he understood the problem.”

Campaign spokesperson Jen Saki stressed that Obama was “passionate” about Israel. “Any hint of fatigue was the result of a recent cross-country campaign tour, not a lack of enthhusiasm for the issues important to this community,” she said.

For at least some, the jury appeared to still be out. But Obama has already started to garner pro-Israel financial support. A review of donations to his campaigns for federal office since 2000 by the Center for Responsive Politics showed Obama had received more than $110,000 from pro-Israel sources through last June. Prominent among his backers are the Chicago-based Pritzker family, which owns the Hyatt chain of hotels. Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC’s treasurer, is also a backer, and a member of Obama’s finance committee.

Related Links:

  • Obama and the Jews, The Jewish Journal (9 March 2007)
  • How Barack Obama learned to love Israel, Ali Abunimah (4 March 2007)