Obama speaks before AIPAC

Yesterday, Senator Barack Obama gave a long-awaited speech regarding his views on the Middle East to the AIPAC Policy Forum in Chicago. As a leading Presidential contender, his views on this topic have been eagerly sought.

Since he has been a national figure for but two years, Senator Obama has a very slight foreign policy record on which to run. Indeed, his lack of foreign policy credentials has been already been commented upon by one of his opponents: Hillary Clinton, while the Republican National Committee has recently run an ad commenting on this gap in his resume.

The Israeli newspaper Haartez has a panel composed of experts that have been ranking American Presidential contenders on the measure of their support for the American-Israel alliance. Obama has been last in these rankings, a function of the lack of knowledge people have concerning his opinions on the Middle East and how he would deal with the issues that have flummoxed so many before him.

Yesterday, he was provided a forum to state his views and an opportunity to inform supporters of Israel of how a President Obama might deal with relations with Israel. Many may have left satisfied; but some - including me - left with some qualms.

Senator Obama took note of the Holocaust, speaking of visits he has made to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and to Yad Vashem in Israel. Then he talked of Holocaust denial on the part of the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran, saying that it was necessary to "deny the deniers".

He talked of his previous visit to Israel and mentioned that he had witnessed the destruction of homes by Hezb'allah rockets (this was before the outbreak of last summer's war between Hezb'allah and Israel) and of a helicopter ride he took that demonstrated for him the narrow width of Israel between the West Bank and the Mediterranean. This is a deservedly popular tour that Israelis take visiting government leaders on to graphically show them the dangers to Israel's existence from the "Auschwitz borders" that existed before the 1967 War. A similar trip had an impact on George W. Bush when Ariel Sharon took him on a flight years before the younger Bush became President.

Then the Senator took a step forward by recognizing that previous steps Israel had taken on behalf of peace had been met by acts of violence. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon (it had come to occupy parts of Lebanon to protect itself from attacks from PLO terrorists) it became a base for the Iranian-supported Hezb'allah terror group.

Until now, I don't believe that the Senator has ever made this explicit connection; that acts of peace have often brought more war to Israel.

The positive impact of these remarks was diminished somewhat later in his remarks when he spoke well of Rabin's outreach to Israel's enemies (allowing Arafat to establish a terror empire in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) and Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza (that has since become a launching pad for thousands of rockets fired into Israel). These steps were also taken on the road to peace, yet, they have also led to more terror. I found myself wondering: Were these not worthy of being mentioned as being steps towards peace that were not reciprocated by the Palestinians?

Senator Obama then took a detour to the east. He brought up Iraq. This has long been a strong point of his that has elevated his appeal to Democrats, particularly those on the left wing of the party. He has gained a great deal of traction for being the only Presidential contender to have opposed the war from its start (made easier by the fact that he was not a Senator when the vote was taken to empower the Administration to invade Iraq).

Unfortunately, he took up a large part of his speech with partisan attacks on George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq. AIPAC is a non-partisan group and speechmakers only rarely, if at all, use it as a venue for political point making.

The Senator may well be testing a new tactic for his campaign, one that may well resonate with supporters of Israel: that the Iraq war has endangered Israel by empowering its major foe, Iran (and Iran's allies-Syria and Hezb'allah).

But he failed to mention that Iran's nuclear program has been going on for many years,  and that it has been a supporter of Hezb'allah for years as well. All before George Bush became President.

Senator Obama also neglected to mention that Saddam Hussein had attacked Israel in the past with rockets, threatened to incinerate it, and handsomely paid for suicide attacks on Israel. He failed to note that Sunni powers, alarmed by the rise of Iran, welcomed Israel's actions against Hezb'allah, and that overtures have reportedly been made by Saudi Arabia to Israel.

These were astounding developments and should not be cast aside as inconvenient facts.

Finally, the Senator announced his plans for dealing with Iran. He was wise to recognize that Iran threatens not just Israel but also America and the rest of the world. A nuclear-armed Iran would embolden terrorists, create instability in the region, lead to nuclear proliferation among its neighbors, and pose an existential threat to Israel and America (both of which nations the Iranian regime has threatened with destruction). Syria is complicit with Iran; it is a supporter of Hezb'allah and Hamas.

Yet his solutions about how peace can be achieved with Syria and Iran might give some pause: they consist only of stronger sanctions and negotiations.

Sanctions are fine - the stronger the better. But there are too many loopholes that permit them to be flouted. However, it has taken years for even the weak ones in place to be accepted by the United Nations. How many more years are to be spent in a fruitless quest to ensure the rest of the world deepens these sanctions and chooses to enforce them?  (See the oil-for-food scandal for an example of how easily sanctions are evaded).

Negotiations have been tried in the past - by America, by European nations, and by the United Nations. They have often provided cover and time for Iran and Syria to become stronger adversaries. Many people have died during these negotiations; Iran's nuclear centrifuges have not stopped spinning while talks have gone on and on.

What might have been a better approach is for Obama to have applied the same logic to Iran and Syria as he has in dealing with Iraq. In Iraq, Obama has proposed a timeline to remove US forces from Iraq, the idea being is that Iraqis will be spurred to accomplish certain goals with the knowledge that American support will be coming to an end.

How about the same treatment for Iran and Syria? Call it "stronger negotiations", signifying that negotiations will occur in stages and that the sequence will be determined by compliance with previous agreements.

For example, the resumption of travel privileges by certain Iranians, currently blocked by UN sanctions, could be allowed in return for successful negotiations regarding halting Iranian support for attacks on American forces in Iraq. Or the supply of spare parts for its airline fleet could be resumed in return for a suspension of its work on centrifuges. The list can go on, but the key is to provide a definitive timeline for negotiations and deadlines as well. If these deadlines are not met, perhaps America should considerably step up its efforts to bring about regime change.

Although the Senator finds Hezb'allah violence against Israel worthy of being condemned he seems to ignore acts of Palestinian terrorism (merely talking of Palestinian "extremists" instead). He criticized Hezb'allah rocket attacks from Lebanon, but not Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. He notes the destruction of homes by Hezb'allah but not the destruction of lives from Palestinian suicide bombings. He condemns Holocaust denial by Iran but is silent about Palestinian indoctrination of hatred among its children.

The double standard is chilling and disquieting. The remedy of more "jaw-jaw" and the near futility of sanctions (particularly when Iran is protected by strong commercial relations with various nations) are equally unsettling.

Senator Obama talked about the need to "rebuild a road to real peace and security throughout the region". His remedies might seem to be the low risk road to follow but that road is one also likely to lead to a literal dead end.

If his goal in yesterday's address was to run some ideas up the flagpole to see if people salute,  he may have met with some degree of success. If Senator Obama gains wide support from those in the crowd who heard his remarks to AIPAC, then it will be a portentous development. For then the bar will be permanently lowered for all political candidates in the future regarding the level of their support for the American-Israel alliance. That might very well be what the future holds.

Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.