For Barack Obama, a careful courting of Jewish vote
The Democratic presidential hopeful has recalibrated his words about Israel and the Middle East peace process.
For a candidate intent on courting the Jewish vote, some of the headlines for Sen. Barack Obama in recent weeks have been less than heartening.Skip to next paragraph
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"Obama comment draws fire from Jews," the Des Moines Register declared after the senator's unscripted remark at an Iowa campaign stop in March that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" from stalled peace efforts with the Israelis.
"Obama on the Mideast: Not quite comfortable," The Chicago Jewish Star said after his first major policy speech on the Middle East, to a pro-Israel group in his hometown.
And at last week's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, Senator Obama's omission of Israel in response to a question about America's top allies gave moderator Brian Williams an opening to revisit the Iowa flap in front of a television audience of more than 2 million.
Some analysts say the miscues add up to a faltering start for Obama with a group of politically active voters and donors who could play an important role in a tight Democratic primary, particularly in states with larger Jewish populations like New York, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, and California.
But Obama's advisers contend the sharp questions are a result of scrutiny any newcomer to the national stage would face on terrain as knotty as Middle East politics.
"I think it's coming significantly just out of the newness factor," says Dan Shapiro, an adviser to the Obama campaign. "We've known, and he's recognized since the beginning, that for someone who's only been in national office for two years lots of people are going to have lots of questions."
To answer those questions, Obama has delivered a series of speeches since March before Jewish audiences – two before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential pro-Israel lobby, and one, last week, before the National Jewish Democratic Council here.
Even in that short span, his remarks have undergone a subtle evolution.
In March, he spoke of relaxing restrictions on aid to the Palestinians and said "both the Israeli and Palestinian people have suffered from the failure to achieve" the "goal" of "two states living side by side in peace and security." While asserting that the United States should isolate Hamas and other Palestinian Islamic militants, he said that "Israel will also have some heavy stones to carry" in any peace process.
By last week, however, the references to Palestinian suffering and Israeli heavy-lifting were gone, replaced by a less nuanced pro-Israel stance nearly indistinguishable from that of his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"When I am president, the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel in search of this peace and in defense against those who seek its destruction," Obama told an audience at the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), where his staff also handed out a 29-page "American-Israeli Relationship Issue Packet."
Yet two days later, when asked at the debate at South Carolina State University to name America's three most important allies, Obama listed the European Union, NATO, and Japan.
"I didn't hear you mention Israel," Mr. Williams interjected, asking whether the senator still stood behind his statement that "no one is suffering more than the Palestinian people."
"What I said is, nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region," Obama replied. "Israel has been one of our most important allies around the world."
Senator Clinton learned the price of striking an off note on Middle East politics early in her first Senate campaign. In 1999, she kissed Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, moments after Mrs. Arafat accused Israel of gassing Palestinian women and children. Clinton later claimed Mrs. Arafat's remarks had been mistranslated and eventually denounced them, but the episode threatened to derail her campaign.
"It played very poorly," recalls Steve Rabinowitz, a press aide in the Clinton White House. "For the next six years, she really worked the community and now she reaches into every corner, from the most secular Upper East Side Jew to the most religiously observant, even Hasidic.