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March 5, 2012 2:30 pm

Jews Look for Good News: Reaction to Obama at AIPAC

avatar by Heather Robinson

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Delegates at the AIPAC convention. Photo: Ruvi Leider.

Attendees’ reactions to President Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference ranged, among the delegates with whom this reporter spoke, from mixed to strongly positive.

Delegates, or citizen lobbyists who traveled from across the country to lobby their members of Congress on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship, gathered to hear speakers, including President Obama, who addressed the conference Sunday morning following Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

Obama opened his remarks with a lengthy homage to Peres, of whom he said, “he has … been a powerful moral voice that reminds us that right makes might — not the other way around.” Obama announced that in the spring, he will invite Peres to the White House to present him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Obama asserted that he has been a friend to Israel not just in word, but in deed.

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“As you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words,” he said. “You can look at my deeds.”

He went on to cite as examples of his support for Israel “military and intelligence cooperation,” adding, “[M]ake no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge — because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

He cited his support for Israel’s “Iron Dome” rocket defense system and his diplomatic support for Israel, such as his administration’s boycott of the United Nations Conference Against Racism, dubbed “Durban III.” He also cited his intervention to secure the release of Israeli diplomats in Cairo when they were surrounded by a mob at the Israeli embassy there.

He said, “[W]henever an effort is made to de-legitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back. Which is why, if during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts.”

Obama spoke of himself as a President who has “a deeply held preference for peace over war,” adding that the consequences of his decisions to send men and women into harm’s way, including some of them being “gravely wounded” or being killed, he will carry with him “long after [he leaves] this office.”

He went on to say “And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it … We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States — just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”

Obama also said, “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

Reaction to the President’s speech among AIPAC delegates was mostly positive.

“He acknowledged that Israelis have the right to defend themselves,” said Alicia Stillman of West Bloomfield, Mich.

“I liked seeing the support Obama and … President [Peres] had for each other,” said Lauren Weinberg of Blue Bell, Pa. “It helped me trust in what the President [Obama] is saying about where he’s been and where he wants to go in support of Israel.”

“It was a very rounded speech,” said Henry Smith, a member of the British Parliament who had traveled to the conference from London. Obama, Smith thought, “effectively re-stated his commitment” to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and added that the speech communicated, “The Iranian regime shouldn’t doubt the resolve of the West.”

“He made a good argument [regarding] let’s let sanctions do their job,” said Arthur Berrick of Tarzana, Ca. “Coming here I might have looked at it differently.”

Others voiced a mixed reaction.

“If push comes to shove he might be less inclined to be favorable [toward Israel] but he’s done some good things like supporting the Iron Dome,” rocket defense system, said Mervyn Wolf of Calabas, Ca. He added, “He was mending fences today to reassure people in light of some things he’s said.”

Some expressed that, in highlighting certain facts, the President presented a one-dimensional picture of his behavior toward Israel.

“I thought it was somewhat moving but I have a lot of reasons for doubt,” said Jacqueline Skevin, a student at the University of Miami. “This administration has done a lot to de-legitimize the state [of Israel], such as comparing the plight of the Palestinians to [the plight of Jews in] the Holocaust. Being pro-Israel does not mean being anti-Palestinian, but I can’t agree with that.”

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  • Marylin Pitz

    It is difficult to ascertain from Obama’s remarks exactly how far he would go to help Israel in a worst-case scenario. What we know for sure is that he wants to be re-elected.

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