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AIPAC and the candidates

With the end of the AIPAC conference on Wednesday, US foreign policy and the geopolitics of the Middle East were drawn into the spotlight. Delivering speeches were all three major presidential candidates Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. The Real News Network’s Senior News Analyst Aijaz Ahmad spoke to Bernard Avishai contributing editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of the recently published book, The Hebrew Republic.

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Story Transcript

ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: At the end of the AIPAC conference on Wednesday, US foreign policy and the geopolitics of the Middle East were drawn into the spotlight. Delivering speeches were all three major presidential candidates—Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Senator Barack Obama. The Real News senior news analyst, Aijaz Ahmad, spoke to Bernard Avishai, contributing editor of the Harvard Business Review and author of the recently published book The Hebrew Republic.

AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR ANALYST, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: In 2004, when President Bush addressed the AIPAC meeting in Washington, he said this great coalition between the United States and Israel is impregnable, and one of the reasons for it is AIPAC. Prime Minister Olmert last year said that AIPAC is the best friend Israel has on the face of the earth, which surprised me a lot, because I thought it was the government of the United States that was the best friend Israel had on the face of the earth. This kind of importance that is given to AIPAC by everybody, do you think it’s justifiable? And if so, what are the sources of this importance in power of AIPAC?

BERNARD AVISHAI, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: Clearly it is the American government that is the best friend Israel has on the face of the earth. And the reason why AIPAC is accorded this kind of gratitude by the Israeli government is that it’s seen as instrumental to maintaining an American commitment to Israel. So the real question, which is the one I think you’re implying, is, you know, how important is AIPAC, really, in consolidating this American position?

AHMAD: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. That’s the question.

AVISHAI: And I think the answer is that it’s been very important, but in some sense it’s been important because the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States since the Six-Day War really has been important to America as much as to Israel. Where AIPAC has been, I think, particularly important in recent years—and here I think its influence has been questionable—is in interpreting friendship to Israel as, you know, leaving your hands off the Israeli government and what the Israeli government may be doing. AIPAC has interpreted its role as providing the Israeli government as much room for maneuver as Israelis want. And that, particularly on the question of West Bank settlements, has given AIPAC a kind of questionable role in the history of Israeli-American relations. Now, I think that that’s starting to change. I think AIPAC cannot really change a consensus position within the American administration and the American public at large, for example on the question of settlements, where I think it’s now very obvious to everyone, including the 60 percent of Israelis who say that they are interested in a two-state solution now, that the settlements have been an obstacle to peace.

AHMAD: Compare the positions taken by McCain and Obama. And if I can be a bit provocative on this, I did not see much of a difference between Obama’s positions and McCain’s. In fact, on one or two things, Obama’s position seemed to be harder.

AVISHAI: I think it’s fair to say that the McCain and Obama speeches were similar, insofar as they both ticked off all of the necessary statements of commitment to Israel’s security, and each found ways—as did Hillary Clinton, by the way—each found ways of demonstrating that this commitment comes from the heart and comes from experience and comes from the bones, and not something that’s being done as a matter of expediency. But I do think that there is a difference of emphasis here. Obama, in calling for a two-state solution, also made clear that he was against the settlements and that this is now part of the American consensus. He also spoke, I thought very cautiously, about Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and he used the term "undivided." Now, this is code. All these things are code. When you’re trying to say that you expect sovereignty to be Israeli in the whole of Jerusalem, you usually say, "Jerusalem, Israel’s capital united." When you say "undivided," what you really mean is that you have a commitment that a wall will not separate the various parts of the city, but you’re not prejudicing in advance the question of where sovereignty will be. And there are many parts of the Israeli government who have been stating recently that they expect the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to be part of a Palestinian state, should we ever get to that point.

AHMAD: Let me ask you, you know, the kind of positions that are being enunciated by one speaker after another at AIPAC seems to reflect the more sort of right-wing end of Israeli politics. Would you say that these positions are very much at the center of Israeli politics? How do these positions play inside Israel?

AVISHAI: A great many Israelis now are very concerned with Iran, very concerned with whether or not the American government will, in effect, deter Iranian, you know, possible nuclear capability, deter whatever Iran may be doing with Hezbollah or Hamas. And I think here we get a difference of emphasis. The Bush position all along has been that deterrence is really America’s strong suit, that what American has to do is prove that it has a tremendous power to deter, that it has military capability and will use it in the final analysis. What Obama spent most of his time talking about in the second part of his speech was that we need not just the power to deter but the power to attract, and that what we need is a diplomatic surge.

AHMAD: What you’re really suggesting is that, yes, all the candidates are speaking from inside a consensus, but there are also real differences among them, which you can hear in the nuanced language that different people are using.

AVISHAI: Well, yes, of course. The nuances have to do with whether or not we’re going to have a diplomatic surge, or whether this is going to be mainly a matter of military threat. I think Obama’s making it very clear that he stands for a diplomatic track, but there’s only so far he can go outside the consensus of what is the appropriate way to talk to Israelis and what is the appropriate amount of space to give the Israeli leadership, given that, you know, there are states to be won in November, and there are two particularly in which the Jewish vote—Pennsylvania and Florida—may be a factor.

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