Obama’s Comments on Israel Stir Criticism in U.S.
The New York Times
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: June 7, 2008
The morning after claiming the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama spoke to skeptical members of a pro-Israel lobby and made a pledge that some of them found pleasantly surprising: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
Talking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Senator Barack Obama expressed support for an “undivided” Jerusalem. Republicans now accuse him of “flip-flopping.”
That statement generated a storm of controversy in the Middle East, with one Kuwaiti daily calling it “a slap in the face” to Arabs. And over the last 24 hours, as Mr. Obama and his campaign have sought to explain his initial remarks, and suggested that an undivided Jerusalem would be hard to achieve, they have been accused of backtracking, which has generated a new round of criticism, this one here at home among Jewish groups.
Taken together, the remarks, which Obama aides and surrogates maintain do not express any shift of position, play to one of the main criticisms that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made of his likely rival in the November election. On the campaign trail, Mr. McCain has repeatedly attacked Mr. Obama as so inexperienced and uninformed in foreign affairs that he would jeopardize vital security interests of both the United States and its allies, including Israel.
Sensing an opportunity, the Republican National Committee and allied groups on Friday accused Mr. Obama of “flip-flopping,” echoing earlier criticism of what they say is his inconsistent position on having talks with the leaders of rogue states like Iran. And Mr. McCain, campaigning in southern Florida, which has a large Jewish population, quickly echoed those attacks.
“I can’t react to every comment that Senator Obama makes, because it probably will change,” he said after an air boat ride through the Everglades, “as it did on sitting down and talking unconditionally with Ahmadinejad and dictators.” That was a reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, although Mr. Obama has recently qualified past assertions he has made about talking with Iran’s leaders.
For his part, Mr. McCain was not entirely clear on his position about Jerusalem either, saying that the city’s status would be subject to negotiations.
“The point is Jerusalem is undivided,” he said. “Jerusalem is the capital.”
“And,” he added, “we should move our embassy to Jerusalem,” from Tel Aviv, “before anything else happens. The subject of Jerusalem itself will be addressed in negotiations by the Israeli government and people.”
Mr. Obama’s speech on Wednesday in Washington to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee came just hours after he claimed the Democratic presidential nomination. As such, and especially in view of doubts that Jewish groups have expressed about his commitment to Israel, it was “a major platform and a major speech, and he knew that everyone would be listening,” said Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
To strong applause, Mr. Obama said “Israel’s security is sacrosanct,” and he promised to “ensure that Israel could defend itself from any threat — from Gaza to Tehran.” He also pledged to throw his full weight behind peace talks from the beginning of his administration, implicitly criticizing President Bush. And Mr. Obama again endorsed the “two-state solution,” one Jewish and one Palestinian, for the contested area, which has been his standard position and that of virtually every presidential candidate.
But his remarks about Jerusalem received the most enthusiastic response. Mr. Diament said, “My organization and constituents were very excited when we heard him on Wednesday making what seemed to our ears to be a very clear and declarative statement, something different from what he had said before, but which he is now circling back towards in his clarifying statements yesterday and today.”
In the Middle East, however, reaction to Mr. Obama’s speech, which was broadcast live on several Arab-language television stations, was immediate, and strongly negative. Some of the sharpest reaction came from Palestinian leaders who had previously expressed hope that Mr. Obama would break with what they saw as a pattern of American favoritism toward Israel.
“This statement is totally rejected,” said Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. He added, “We will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital.”
Even within Israel, where the speech was overwhelmingly applauded, some analysts suggested Mr. Obama had staked out a position beyond that of current Israeli leaders. One television commentator said his language was reminiscent of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin of the hard-line Likud Party, who signed a peace accord with Egypt but expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Mr. Obama was asked about criticisms from the Arab world, and whether his remarks meant that Palestinians had no claim to Jerusalem.
“Well,” he replied, “obviously it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues,” including the status of Jerusalem.
While restating his support for an undivided city, he also said, “My belief is that, as a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute.”
An article on Friday in The Jerusalem Post sought to clarify Mr. Obama’s stance further. In it, an unnamed foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama was quoted as saying that the candidate’s position is that “Jerusalem remains Israel’s capital and it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967.”
That formulation does not rule out the city simultaneously serving as the capital of a Palestinian state or Palestinians’ being granted control of some Arab neighborhoods there.
With criticism mounting on Friday from Republicans and some Jewish groups, supporters of Mr. Obama rushed to his defense.
“Barack Obama’s position has been the same for years, and entirely consistent on the campaign,” said Representative Robert Wexler of Florida, one of Mr. Obama’s main bridges to Jewish voters. “He wants a unified Jerusalem that serves as the capital of a Jewish state of Israel, and to extrapolate anything else from that position is inaccurate.”
Mr. Wexler called Mr. Obama’s position the “most pro-Israel of all” because he has promised to respect whatever agreement Israel and Palestinians reach through negotiations rather than impose an American solution.
Dennis Ross, a diplomat who was involved in Middle East peace talks for the administrations of the first President Bush and President Bill Clinton, expressed similar views. Mr. Ross said he saw “no calibration” in Mr. Obama’s stance, which he said “does not contradict in any way, shape or form what our policy has historically been.”
But leaders of some Jewish groups remain unconvinced.
“With Barack Obama and his campaign watering down his statement for an undivided Jerusalem,” said Morton A. Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, “one must question whether his initial remark was simply meant to mislead Jewish voters and Israel supporters by not stating his true beliefs on this issue.”
Michael Cooper contributed reporting.