Politics & Government

Obama reassures Jewish audience of his devotion to Israel

Sen. Barack Obama speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C. on June 4, 2008.
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C. on June 4, 2008. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama reassured the American Jewish community on Wednesday that he's a devoted friend of Israel, a view seconded enthusiastically by Hillary Clinton.

On his first full day as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Obama appeared before one of his toughest crowds, a community that's been skeptical about his intentions toward Israel

He got polite ovations and good notices, about the same response that Clinton, a longtime favorite, got.

The audience seemed to like his recollections of first learning about Israel as an 11-year-old camper — his counselor was Jewish and had lived in Israel — and his recollections of how, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, "Jewish- and African-Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder."

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama opened his remarks by noting that "I know some provocative e-mails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country . . . they're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president.

"And all I want to say is," he paused and smiled, "let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening."

Don't worry, he said, because "I am among friends. Good friends."

Clinton, on the other hand, has long been a favorite of this crowd, and she assured them that they can trust her rival.

"I know Senator Obama knows what is at stake here," she said of the U.S.-Israel relationship. "I know Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel."

Their appearance before AIPAC at the Washington Convention Center — Obama spoke first, then Clinton — was largely a polite affair, a reaffirmation by both senators that they'd do what was necessary to protect Israel's security.

Their speeches, each of which lasted about half an hour, came the day after Obama clinched the party's presidential nomination. Clinton made no mention of the race and didn't discuss her future at the conference.

Like Obama, she concentrated on promising the crowd that she was a strong backer of Israel and had long-standing ties to the Jewish community.

Both senators vowed to get tough with Iran if necessary.

"I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything," Obama said.

He drew a sharp contrast between himself and his likely general election Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

McCain spoke to this gathering Monday, and tried to paint Obama as soft on Iran because of his emphasis on diplomacy.

Dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have little value, McCain said, "except an earful of anti-Semitic rants and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another."

Obama elaborately explained his view of diplomacy Wednesday, and charged that McCain "offers only an alternate reality, one where the war in Iraq has somehow put Iran on its heels.

"The truth is the opposite. Iran has strengthened its position. Iran is now enriching uranium . . . its support for terrorism and threats toward Israel have increased."

He promised to "use all elements of American power to pressure Iran. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

While diplomacy would be his starting point, Obama noted: "I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking. But as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing — if and only if it can advance the interest of the United States."

And if that diplomacy doesn't work, he said, "we will ratchet up the pressure."

After Obama's speech, two high-profile Jewish McCain supporters ripped the Illinois senator in a conference call, honing the McCain campaign theme that Obama is a smooth talker who's out of his depth on foreign policy.

"Senator Obama argued today that American foreign policy in recent years has essentially strengthened Iran ... and has made Israel less safe," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut.

"I just disagree with that. If Israel is in danger today, it's not because of American foreign policy, which has been strongly supportive of Israel in every way. It's not because of what we've done in Iraq. It's because Iran is a fanatical terrorist expansionist state and has a leader and a leadership that constantly threatens to extinguish the state of Israel."

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., called Obama's speech "nice. It had some good phrases and lines in it." But, Cantor said, "it's easy to talk about supporting Israel. It's hard to do it. ... John McCain doesn't need any on-the-job training. It's in his DNA."

(Matt Stearns contributed to this article.)