Obama woos Israel lobby

By Nathan Guttman, June 5, 2008

The largest-ever conference of pro-Israel activists convened in Washington DC this week. It took a political flavour as presidential candidates used the event to tout their pro-Israel credentials and tried to court the Jewish community for support in the coming November elections.

The main message sent out by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) focused on the need to take tough measures against Iran. Presidential hopefuls followed suit, promising to increase pressure on Tehran, if and when elected to the White House.

While the schedule was planned months in advance, the appearance of the presumptive Democratic nominee and his chief rival could not have come at a better time.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton showed up at the Aipac conference only hours after wrapping up the five-month-long primary race, at the end of which Mr Obama clinched the nomination.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama talks to an Alpac delegate at this week's conference

Mr Obama was greeted warmly by the crowd of pro-Israel supporters, some of whom had been suspicious in the past regarding the candidates supporters and backers.

The presumptive candidate went though a laundry list of issues in which he has supported Israel and will continue supporting it if elected president, including a commitment to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Focusing on his call to negotiate with Iran, Mr Obama argued that tough negotiations were not a sign of weakness, adding: “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Ever. Ever.” The pledge was welcomed with a long standing ovation.

Mr Obama went on to criticise the Bush administration policy on the Middle East, arguing that the war in Iraq had only strengthened Iran which is now threatening Israel.

Mrs Clinton, until recently Mr Obama’s rival for the nomination, came to his support in her speech, telling the pro-Israel crowd that Mr Obama “will be a good friend of Israel”.

The tone was when Republican candidate John McCain lashed out at his Democratic rival, pointing to differences between him and the Democratic candidates on the core issue of the conference — Iran.

Mr McCain argued against Mr Obama’s willingness to negotiate with leaders of Iran, saying it would lead to no more than an “earful of antisemitic rants”.

The Republican candidate, who according to public opinion polls is trailing Obama in support among Jewish voters, was greeted warmly by the Aipac crowd, who cheered his call for tough measures against Iran.

In his speech Mr McCain blasted Mr Obama’s refusal to support a congressional measure calling for the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terror group and said: “Here, too, he is mistaken.

“Holding Iran’s influence in check, and holding a terrorist organisation accountable, sends exactly the right message — to Iran, to the region and to the world.”

The audience responded with applause to this call, as well as to Mr McCain’s claim that a quick pullout of US troops from Iraq would put Israel at risk.

Organisers of the conference had tried to maintain a bipartisan approach and cautioned members to be graceful to all politicians, regardless of their own political views.

The three day event concluded on Wednesday with more than 7,000 delegates heading to Capitol Hill to lobby on pro-Israel issues.

This year’s agenda included a call to toughen sanctions against Iran and to stop sales of refined fuel products to Iran in order to pressure the regime. Aipac delegates also urged all members of Congress to sign a letter supporting Israel as it moves forward to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke at the conference on Tuesday, stressed the “urgent” need to achieve a peace accord with the Palestinians and to end their “daily humiliation” caused by the occupation. Her reference to this issue was welcomed with silence from the pro-Israel crowd.

Last updated: 3:34pm, June 6 2008