According to some observers, Sen. Barack Obama faced the prospect of a cool reception during his speech Tuesday morning at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference. After receiving a massive ovation upon entering the crowd's view at the Washington Convention Center, however, the newly crowned presumptive Democratic nominee for president apparently felt comfortable enough to meet any residual doubts about his record on Israel's security with a touch of humor and a boatload of specifics.
Referencing chain emails filled with what Obama described as "tall tales" regarding his positions on Israel, the Illinois Senator asked AIPAC delegates to let him know "if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening." He proceeded to tell the audience that he would speaking from his heart, and then hit a series of specific pro-Israel positions that brought the crowd to its feet several times.
And then he got a hand from the next speaker: Sen. Hillary Clinton. "Let me be clear, I know that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel," she said. "I know Sen. Obama shares my view that the next president must be ready to say to the world. Our position is unchanging, our resolve unyielding, our stance non-negotiable. The United States stands with Israel, now and forever."
While Clinton studiously avoided referencing Obama's surge past the magic number of delegates needed to cinch the Democratic nomination, she took up the cause of defending him against criticisms Sen. John McCain made during his speech to AIPAC on Monday. Her response to McCain was explicit in a way Obama's was not, perhaps due to his attempt to respect the gathering's non-partisan spirit.
Clinton, however, had less to worry about in terms of alienating a group that was much more familiar and comfortable with her brand. Clinton told those in attendance: "Let me underscore that I believe we need a Democrat in the White House next January. ... President Bush has moved us in wrong direction." Referencing McCain's "strong rhetoric" from his speech to the conference on Monday, Clinton told AIPAC that the Arizona Republican's policies would weaken America and Israel's security, "making the Middle East a more dangerous place."
Chief among his own pledges, Obama said he would "never take military action off the table" in defending America's interests or those of Israel. "Do not be confused," he instructed the crowd. He also called on Egypt to cut off the smuggling of weapons into Hamas-controlled Gaza, described the return of Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah as a priority of U.S. policy, and said he would never "compromise when it comes to Israel's security." He also identified Jerusalem as Israel's capital at the end of any two-state solution.
Still, Obama sought to draw contrasts with the Bush administration, and by extension John McCain. The presumptive Democratic nominee noted that he had opposed holding elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006 with Hamas on the ballot -- a stance that drew cheers. Obama also said he would not wait until the "waning days" of his presidency to press for Israeli-Palestinian peace, an implicit rebuke to President Bush, who is seen as having contributed too little too late to that negotiation track.
When Obama invoked the Hebrew phrase "tikkun olam," regarding the need to "repair this world," a large whoop of cheers went up from young AIPAC staffers who had been herded around the press area -- perhaps to make certain the media heard loud praise for Obama. If their placement and volume was calculated, it turns out AIPAC need not have been so concerned.
A sustained round of enthusiastic applause from the entire conference followed Obama as he left the stage and shook hands with more than three dozen AIPAC board members that were seated behind him -- an elaborate process that was projected onto the hall's eight jumbo monitors. Each previous speaker at the conference, by contrast, only air-kissed and shook hands with those board members conveniently seated on the aisles behind the podium. But for Obama, the individual attention was perhaps a necessary and appreciated touch.