One way or another, America's next president will be speaking to the nation's premiere pro-Israel lobby sometime this week. Each of the three remaining presidential candidates has something to gain and something, potentially, to lose during the three day policy conference in Washington, DC being held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), during which panels of experts, politicians and habitual conference attendees will seek to gain a clearer understanding of Israel's position in the world 60 years after its founding.
First up on Monday morning, Sen. John McCain will have the opportunity to expand his critique of Sen. Barack Obama's "naivete" on the issue of Iran when addressing those assembled. Until now, McCain's gravest suggestion of a downside to Obama's eagerness for diplomacy has been that it would only enhance that regime's "prestige" in global affairs.
As downsides go, prestige enhancement lacks a certain punch -- in this case, due to the fact that Iran has yet to represent much of a threat to America beyond meddling in Iraq and issuing reliably toxic rhetoric. For her part, Sen. Hillary Clinton accurately (if unwisely) observed that the United States could "obliterate" Iran should it ever mount a frontal attack. While arguing for more diplomacy, Obama described the threat posed by Iran as "tiny" relative to the nuclear arsenal operated by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War.
But for Israel and its most ardent sympathizers the world over, diminishing the threat posed by Iran is not so easily done. Given the country's proximity to Israel, its nuclear ambitions and its present sponsorship of two groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, that routinely tangle with the country, McCain in his Monday speech may find the opening he's been looking for to increase the stakes of his foreign policy contrast with Obama. If McCain takes that opportunity, however, he'll need to be careful: the audience might not appreciate the sense that its conference is being used for the purposes of a U.S.-centric debate.
Obama has even more to gain from his speech, on tap for Wednesday. There is plenty of anecdotal and early polling evidence to suggest that Jewish American voters, often a staunch Democratic crowd, are breaking less decisively for the party (and Obama) than in years past. Part of this may have to do with McCain's appeal, though Florida's preference for Clinton -- yes, in an admittedly flawed race -- may also portend ill tidings. Should Obama turn in a strong performance at AIPAC, though, he may gain allies among opinion leaders in the Jewish community, who could in turn spread the word that his foreign policy is not a danger to Israel, and may even be in the country's best interest. A coolly received performance, by contrast, could reignite speculation about Obama's purported lack of Jewish appeal that he would prefer not to stoke.
Whether or not Obama gets an assist in this regard from Hillary Clinton -- who as a senator from New York has won the respect of many Jewish voters, hawk and dove alike -- could prove to be the most intriguing domestic political question of the three-day conference. Slated to speak on the same day, she could burnish Obama's credentials and push back against any criticisms laid at his feet by McCain. Any defense of Obama might rightly be seen as her first salvos as his general election surrogate. But if she's still fighting him by Wednesday, she might once again join McCain in casting doubt upon Obama's judgment and experience.
Stay tuned: the three-ring circus seldom disappoints.