Analyze This: Obama finally starts making his own 'straight talk' on Israel

The news is not what Obama said, but the fact he said it.

obama kenya (photo credit: AP)
obama kenya
(photo credit: AP)
His father and stepfather were Muslims. His middle name is Hussein. He attends a church whose pastor has been critical of Israel and Zionism. He once sat alongside Edward Said at an Arab-American community event in Chicago.
And, as we now know, thanks to the most recent e-mail smear campaign against the Democratic front-runner for president, he looks darn good in a turban.
None of the above, though, will likely make the slightest difference in the support Sen. Barack Obama will - or won't - receive from American Jewish voters either in the remaining Democratic primaries, or, if should emerge as his party's standard-bearer, in November's general election. Jewish voters who wouldn't vote for a candidate based on those factors were certainly never going to vote for Obama - or for any other Democratic presidential candidate - in the first place.
The questions surrounding Obama among his real potential Jewish constituency - or more specifically, among those who place a high priority on a candidate's support for Israel - are not concerned with what is already generally known about his personal and political background. Rather, they are focused on what is unknown about how he would respond to events in this region from the perspective of the Oval Office.
One way to make that assessment is to look at Obama's record on Israel, in votes cast and speeches given. Based on this evidence, he stands firmly in the mainstream of his party's platform positions on US-Israel relations, and also well within the overall American political consensus on the issue.
The problem is, with less then one term in national office and a career focused until now on domestic matters, the actual record of the junior senator from Illinois in this area is pretty scanty. And support for Israel is much more comfortably measured by those who care most about it by a record of consistency built over decades, rather than in a scant few years.
It is this circumstance that has created uncertainty among some sectors of American Jewry (and in official Israeli circles as well) regarding Obama - not an imaginary past that supposedly had him trained in an Indonesian madrassa to be an Islamic Manchurian candidate, but the lack of a real past when it comes to Middle East affairs, at least in comparison to the likes of Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Filling in that blanks space requires more than the de rigueur AIPAC speech of the type Obama delivered a year ago, in which he professed "a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel." This is especially so since any real discussion of the issue beyond that has been largely absent from the primary campaign.
It is not surprising then that Obama's talk in a Cleveland synagogue on Sunday, in which he appeared to speak more frankly and with greater detail regarding Israel than in the past, has generated considerable reaction.
This is especially so regarding his comment that "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel."
Obama went further in seeming to criticize the discourse in the American-Jewish community by saying: "If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress… Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the US pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation."
A more seasoned politician speaking on Israel would surely know better than to refer specifically to the Likud - just as an Israeli leader would not speak publicly of certain US policy positions as being "Republican" or "Democratic."
As for the US pro-Israel community being "protective," this is a charge that will likely sound a little off-key coming so soon after the Jimmy Carter and Walt-Mearsheimer controversies.
But there is little in Obama's comments that counts as either surprising or any real deviation from his previous stands. What's more, he took pains to distance himself from views on Israel expressed by some of his associates deemed less acceptable to the Jewish community, including his occasional foreign policy adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his Chicago pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The news here is not so much what Obama said, but the fact he said it, finally starting his own "straight talk" dialogue with American Jewry. Perhaps this can be taken as another sign that he is now looking beyond the primaries to a campaign against McCain, where US policy on Israel will surely be more of a factor than it has been in his battle against Clinton.
Will any of this make much real difference at the polls next autumn? Not likely. McCain may well do better among American-Jewish voters than most past GOP presidential candidates. But the Jewish vote, for all the disproportionate media attention it receives, is not much of a factor nowadays in potential "swing" states on which presidential elections turn, with the possible exception of Florida.
What's more, it is probably not how Obama will deal with the Israeli-Arab peace process that will influence Jewish voters, since nothing he has said or done indicates he will follow a policy in this regard different than the one now being pursued by the Bush administration.
It is rather a final judgment on how he, or whoever is on the ballot, will contend with the nuclear ambitions of Iran; the stalemated situation in Iraq; the faltering war in Afghanistan; the instability of Pakistan; and the global challenge of radical Islam - that is far more likely to be more on the minds of those Jewish voters who have not yet decided how to cast their votes in November.
[email protected]