With Clintons backing, Obama says hes best for Israel

After months of seeking to paint each other as opposites on Middle East policy, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the same page June 4 at the AIPAC policy conference as they ripped into the Bush administration and Sen. John McCain.

In back-to-back speeches a day after Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, the two senators eschewed any attempt to draw distinctions between themselves, opting instead to argue that the Bush administration’s policies on Iran and Iraq have hurt American and Israeli interests. They also sought to paint McCain as a candidate bent on carrying out those same policies if he were to reach the White House.

Obama started off his remarks with praise for Clinton and her candidacy, and the New York senator returned the favor, assuring the thousands of delegates at the annual policy conference that her Democratic rival would be a dependable ally in the White House.

“I know Senator Obama knows what is at stake here,” Clinton said, adding, “Let me be very clear: I know Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.”

Jewish Democratic insiders said the speeches not only signaled a rapprochement of sorts between the candidates, but reflected the emergence of a wider, more aggressive party strategy for fending off Republican efforts to peel away Jewish votes and contributions. A few years ago many Democratic activists and lawmakers would have been content to stick with the line that both parties were equally strong on Israel-related issues. Now, as Iran pushes ahead with its nuclear program, support remains low for the Iraq War and Israel continues to face Hamas rocket attacks, Jewish Democrats see an opening to rebut the GOP’s claim to be the party that’s best for Israel.

“This is a new approach,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant. “Two years ago many thought it would be difficult to persuade people that George W. Bush had not been good for Israel, even dangerous to try it. It’s not only a case that can be made now, it’s also true.”

Rabinowitz said that many Democrats feel emboldened to push that line of argument given the GOP’s harsh rhetoric about Obama and Israel. McCain has portrayed Obama as a Hamas-supported candidate and Bush delivered a speech at the Knesset last month that many observers viewed as an attempt to tag the Illinois Democrat as an appeaser.

In keeping with the increasingly popular Democratic approach, Obama — and Clinton — fired right back at the Republicans, painting them as advancing a reckless foreign policy that has hurt Israel.

“I don’t think any of us can be satisfied that America’s recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure,” Obama said. “Hamas now controls Gaza. Hezbollah has tightened its grip on southern Lebanon, and is flexing its muscles in Beirut. Because of the war in Iraq, Iran — which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq — is emboldened, and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States and Israel in the Middle East in a generation. Iraq is unstable, and al Qaida has stepped up its recruitment. Israel’s quest for peace with its neighbors has stalled, despite the heavy burdens borne by the Israeli people. And America is more isolated in the region, reducing our strength and jeopardizing Israel’s safety.

“Sen. McCain refuses to understand or acknowledge the failure of the policy that he would continue,” Obama added. “I refuse to continue a policy that has made the United States and Israel less secure.”

Obama made some points more often associated with his hawkish Jewish critics: He insisted that Jerusalem must remain Israel’s undivided capital and stressed his willingness to resort to military force if stepped-up diplomatic efforts failed to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambition.

“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Everything,” he said.

The Illinois senator was overwhelmingly supportive of Israel in his speech, but also said that Jerusalem could “advance the cause of peace by taking appropriate steps — consistent with its security — to ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain from building new settlements.”

Obama appeared to move toward Clinton on the issue of how to deal with Iran, as he argued for boycotting

“firms associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” He also appeared to hedge on what many observers understood as an openness to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As for Clinton, she criticized the Bush administration for its failure to adopt a more effective diplomatic approach.

Though Clinton appeared to draw a warmer reaction, Obama received several standing ovations, including a particularly impassioned one when he spoke of the Jewish religion’s commitment to social justice and spoke of the importance of forging strong ties between the Jewish and African American communities.