WASHINGTON--Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton just finished their speeches here at AIPAC's annual conference. Most of the instant coverage has focused on Hillary's praise for Obama's pro-Israel credentials--"I know that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel"--which, short of dropping out this morning and throwing her support to him, was probably the nicest thing she could do at an event like this. But I didn't find her speech all that magnanimous; maybe I'm wearing the media's Clinton-hating goggles, but her references to Israel's female prime minister Golda Meir ("my personal heroine") and quoting Meir's urgent phone call "a few minutes after midnight" (3 a.m. is after midnight, right?) seemed like subtle reminders that Hillary still very much sees herself as in the race. Her quoting of Isaiah ("All day and all night, they shall never be silent") and her application of it to AIPAC supporters ("You never give up...there are some who say you shouldn't be here...not only do you have a right to stand up for what you believe in, but you have a responsibility to do so") echoed the rhetoric she has been using lately to describe her own self-righteous struggle for the nomination. Also, her compliments to Obama were couched relative to her own positions ("I know Senator Obama shares my view..."). Maybe I'm just being nit-picky, but after last night's ridiculous non-concession, my bar is pretty low for the Clinton camp.
That said, Obama was the clear winner today. His speech was substantive and rousing--getting among the loudest rounds of applause of the three-day conference--whereas Clinton seemed a bit tired and stale (though she had the bad luck of going second, so sounded redundant when repeating the necessary pro-Israel memes). I spoke to more than a few staunch AIPACers that were on the fence about Obama, but responded to his speech with some form of "Now I understand what the hype is all about." Unlike most politicians, who often seem to just be going through the motions at this kind of event, Obama came off as heartfelt and truly passionate about the issue. His humor was also quite welcome--in responding to the smear emails circulating in the Jewish community, Obama said, "Let me know if you've seen this guy named Barack Obama, because he seems pretty scary." He also made some interesting parallels between the history of Jewish statelessness and his own rootless childhood ("There is always a homeland at the center of our story") and made a pretty stirring plea for cooperation between the Jewish and African American communities.
But his strongest material was in making the case that Bush's--and thus McCains's--foreign policy has actually made Israel less safe (a counter-intuitive point to most of the people in the audience). He emphasized that our invasion of Iraq has strengthened Iran, and that Bush's hasty push for Palestinian elections (which Obama voted against) is what set the stage for Hamas's rise in Gaza. He also poked fun at Bush's opposition to Israel's peace talks with Syria. He took some good jabs at McCain (in talking about Obama's Iran divestment bill, "for reasons I'll let him explain, John McCain has never signed on") and Bush ("I won't wait until the waning days of my presidency" to push for peace). The biggest applause came from his unambiguous declaration that "there is no room at the negotiating table for terrorists"--a necessary clarification in light of Bush's veiled Obama attack at the Knesset. Taking this position from a place of strength ("Sitting down with our adversaries...at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it will advance the interests of the United States") and repeating his line about not being afraid to sit down with our enemies (a good way to reframe the appeasement debate) also seemed to curry favor with the AIPAC crowd.
Obama gets point for some deft Hebrew usage, such as shoah (the Hebrew word for Holocaust) and tikkun olam (healing the world). Hillary gets points for making reference to two obscure yet hot-button issues for American Jews--the anti-Israel hatefest at the UN Durban Conference and the acceptance of Israel's Magen David Adom into the International Red Cross--that surely resonated among the AIPAC set.
PS. Please forgive any typos in my hasty transcription of today's speeches. I'll try to update when official transcripts become available.