Obama Walks Fine Line at Major Pro-Israel Meet

WASHINGTON - Speaking last year at the same forum, he received scattered boos. But as Senator Barack Obama strode towards the podium Wednesday morning at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he was greeted with a standing ovation.

The applause kept coming throughout his half-hour address. And when it was over, the cheering persisted.

If Obama appeared confident, it was perhaps because he had clinched the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party the previous evening, even if his adversary, Senator Hillary Clinton, would still not formally concede.

Obama spoke directly before the junior senator from New York on Wednesday and used his newfound position of strength to stress peace, dialogue, and diplomacy. They are themes that are not traditionally favoured at AIPAC, widely considered the most influential foreign policy lobby group in Washington, and which has been historically sceptical of the value of negotiations between Israel and its neighbours.

"A secure, lasting peace is in Israel's interest. It is in America's national interest. And it is in the interest of the Palestinian people and the Arab world. 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," said Obama.

"And I won't wait until the waning days of my presidency," he added in a clear dig at President George W. Bush, an AIPAC favourite for his unstinting support of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The audience applauded.

The annual AIPAC conference is a test of loyalty for high-level officials, the year's most important event for a powerful group attempting to affect U.S. policy towards the Middle East.

To critics, the conference is a pander party, drawing an extraordinary number of high-level U.S. officials who -- for political reasons -- pledge their unwavering support for Israel, even if that "support" goes against what the Israeli government and majority of the population want.

But Obama's speech in many ways marked a shift in the usual approach, as it seemed the Illinois senator was encouraging the AIPAC faithful to support his positions, rather than submitting to what the group's policy agenda otherwise suggested.

"His speech was remarkably different in tone and substance from any other speaker that you heard at the conference," said Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council. "Instead of staying away from the issue, he made a strong case, he didn't back down from the fact that diplomacy would not only be valuable to U.S. interests, but is also good for Israel's security."

While much of the conference -- indeed, Senator John McCain's address to the same audience two days before -- was devoted to the intentions and perceived existential threat posed by Iran, Obama offered a few suggestions on what Israel itself could do to advance the cause of peace with Palestinians in its own backyard.

"Israel can," he said, "ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain from building new settlements -- as it agreed to with the [President George W.] Bush administration at Annapolis."

Obama also lent his support to the Israeli government's indirect peace talks with neighbouring Syria, in contrast to the very tepid response offered by the Bush administration. McCain failed to even mention it on Monday.

And when it came to Iran -- Public Enemy Number One at the AIPAC conference -- Obama said he had no illusions about pursuing diplomacy with Tehran but would reintroduce diplomacy as a tool of statecraft to succeed, not just to contain "failure".

"Our willingness to pursue diplomacy will make it easier to mobilise others to join our cause. If Iran fails to change course when presented with this choice by the United States, it will be clear -- to the people of Iran, and to the world -- that the Iranian regime is the author of its own isolation," he said.

"We will present a clear choice [to Iran]. If you abandon your dangerous nuclear programme, support for terror, and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful incentives -- including the lifting of sanctions, and political and economic integration with the international community. If you refuse, we will ratchet up the pressure."

Obama's speech offered a stark contrast to his Republican adversary, Senator John McCain, who in an address to the same audience on Monday maintained the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush administration and mocked Obama's willingness to engage Iran diplomatically.

"Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents," McCain went on, "as the radicals and hardliners strengthen their position and suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability."

But Obama's speech was not pander-free, however. One comment appeared aimed at appeasing hardliners within the AIPAC's leadership: "Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel, and must remain undivided," said Obama.

Even the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected any final settlement in which Palestinians do not share -- at least part of -- Jerusalem.

In an unusually pointed speech before AIPAC on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called talking to Iran pointless unless Tehran suspends the country's uranium enrichment programme.

When it came her turn to speak, the haggard and deflated Clinton, who is expected to formally acknowledge Obama's victory by the end of the week, came one step closer to acknowledging Obama's win but did not refer to him as the nominee.

"Let me be very clear," she said, "I know Senator Obama will be a good friend of Israel." That assertion, which was not included in her prepared remarks, appeared designed to help rally Jewish support for Obama's now virtually certain candidacy. During the primary season, Clinton consistently did better among Jewish voters, particularly among older Jews whose participation in elections is particularly high.

While Jews account for only three percent of the population, they are concentrated in such key swing states as Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California.

Financial contributions from Jewish donors account for as much as 20 percent of Republican campaign funds and as much as 40 percent of Democratic funds, according to a recent article by the Forward, the largest nationally circulated Jewish newspaper in the U.S.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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