Talks with Iran preferable, force possible, Obama says

RON KAMPEAS, JTA

WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) started his first major Middle East policy address with a joke about the “small gathering” of his AIPAC friends — some 800 people packed into a hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago.

But the man seeking the Democratic presidential nomination was aiming for more than the rafters March 2: His message was aimed at Washington, Tehran, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Damascus and the liberal-left landscape occupied by his party’s base.

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It was a high-wire act, and the trick was to project toughness and closeness to Israel while maintaining an open mind about how to deal with its most dangerous enemy, Iran. The speech also aimed to show that the senator, who has held national office for barely two years, is no foreign-policy novice.

There were, to be sure, reassuring messages for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse: Nothing, including a military option, should be off the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat, Obama said, and the agreement that Palestinian factions came to recently for a national unity government was “not good enough” because it failed to renounce terrorism or recognize Israel.

But Obama made clear that he wasn’t going to stray from the sentiments of a party base that is profoundly wary of any U.S. belligerence in the Middle East, blaming Bush administration policies for the Iraq quagmire.

Tough talk on Iran from another Democratic hopeful, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, rebounded against him, and Edwards spent weeks walking back from his pledge at Israel’s Herzliya conference this winter to use force if necessary to face down Iran — a posture now seen as a costly early campaign blunder.

Obama learned Edwards’ lesson: In a speech made available to reporters before his appearance, he immediately coupled his warnings about the military option with his preference for peaceful engagement.

“While we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons,” he said.

Tough-minded diplomacy, he said, “includes direct engagement with Iran similar to the meetings we conducted with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, laying out in clear terms our principles and interests.”

The Bush administration — backed strongly by AIPAC — until recently has avoided engagement with Iran, believing it merely would reward a regime that stubbornly resists transparency about its nuclear program.

But this week the White House agreed for the first time to participate in multilateral talks on Iraq that would include Iran and Syria among a host of regional players.

Obama had other messages aimed at the base whose support he needs if he’s to win the Democratic nomination. Much of the speech outlined his plan for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, something the AIPAC crowd greeted with applause. U.S. Jews overwhelmingly believe the Iraq war was a mistake, according to polls.

Obama framed his opposition to keeping troops in Iraq in terms of the danger the U.S.-led occupation poses to Israel.

“A consequence of the administration’s failed strategy in Iraq has been to strengthen Iran’s strategic position, reduce U.S. credibility and influence in the region, and place Israel and other nations friendly to the United States in greater peril,” he said. “These are not the signs of a well-paved road. It is time for profound change.”

Obama advocates a phased deployment starting in May and ending in March 2008, keeping some troops in neighboring countries.

In some areas Obama veered away from AIPAC talking points and more toward a Democratic Party that still embraces the deep involvement in Middle East peacemaking that characterized the Clinton era.

“For six years the administration has missed opportunities to increase the United States’ influence in the region, and help Israel achieve the peace she wants and the security she needs,” he said, repudiating Bush’s policy of waiting until the parties were ready for bold moves — a policy AIPAC also favors.

Obama also warned that Israel would have to make major concessions.

“Israel will have some heavy stones to carry as well,” he said. “Its history has been full of tough choices in search of peace and security.

“Yitzhak Rabin had the vision to reach out to longtime enemies. Ariel Sharon had the determination to lead Israel out of Gaza. These were difficult, painful decisions that went to the heart of Israel’s identity as a nation.”

Still, woven throughout the speech were subtle signs of appreciation for Israel from someone who a little more than two years ago was a state senator from Illinois.

He began by describing an experience the pro-Israel lobby wishes on every aspirant for public office: a flight over Israel.

“The helicopter took us over the most troubled and dangerous areas and that narrow strip between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea,” he said of his first visit to Israel in January 2006. “At that height I could see the hills and the terrain that generations have walked across. I could truly see how close everything is and why peace through security is the only way for Israel.”

Obama also did not stint in expressing disappointment over the national unity deal that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the relatively moderate Fatah Party, struck last month with the ruling Hamas terrorist group.

“The reports of this agreement suggest that Hamas, Fatah and independent ministers would sit in a government together, under a Hamas prime minister, without any recognition of Israel, without a renunciation of violence and with only an ambiguous promise to ‘respect’ previous agreements,” he said. “We must tell the Palestinians this is not good enough.”

Obama singled out Syria and Iran for arming Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group that launched a war against Israel last summer — but he also chided the Bush administration for allegedly not allowing Israel to pursue Syrian peace overtures.

“We should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests,” he said to applause. “No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”

It’s the kind of message that could open up channels for Jewish support — until now a reservoir believed to have been tapped mostly by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) among the Democratic contenders.

One sign it’s working: Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), one of the most prominent Jewish congressmen, announced this week that he will chair Obama’s Florida campaign, citing the senator’s position on Israel as a reason.

“I have spoken with Barack to discuss the dangers facing our ally Israel, and I am convinced there will be no stronger supporter of Israel than President Obama,” Wexler said in a statement.