BY LYNN SWEET
For the first time since becoming a senator -- much less a White House hopeful -- Barack Obama on Friday will talk in depth about U.S. policy toward Israel and the Mideast.
The story behind the story of Obama's appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's regional forum at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers provides insight into the Obama presidential operation.
AIPAC, whose sole interest is U.S.-Israel relations, is one of the most influential lobbying groups in the nation. Its annual policy conference starts March 11 in Washington. The gathering provides fertile territory for Obama to schmooze with well-connected backers and donors. Though no 2008 presidential candidates are on the program, Obama is hosting a reception for AIPAC members -- as is archrival Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton delivered a well-received speech before an AIPAC regional meeting in New York on Feb. 1. The Obama team wanted to get Obama's pro-Israel views -- not well-known -- out front before the big AIPAC conference. Obama's team has put together a briefing sheet on his record about Israel, but that was not widely circulated and clearly not enough. If he was to make a major speech on Israel, there was an interest among Obama's Chicago backers for him to deliver it in the city.
The Chicago/Midwest AIPAC office obliged and booked Friday's foreign policy forum featuring Obama, not unlike how the Chicago Council on Global Affairs arranged an event for Obama when he wanted to deliver a major Iraq speech last November.
Meanwhile, Obama's speech started taking shape with input from Mark Lippert, Obama's Senate foreign policy adviser, and Dan Shapiro, a Middle East specialist, now a lobbyist, who is an Obama campaign foreign policy adviser. Shapiro recently was a deputy chief of staff for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and handled international affairs for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He also served on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton.
One of the most important concerns for Israel is to ensure that Iran does not get nuclear capability.
Obama, in his speech, will detail his vision for Israel and the Mideast and expand his views on regional engagement. Last November, in his Iraq address, Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for an "opening dialogue" with Iran and Syria. "Make no mistake," Obama said then, "if the Iranians and Syrians think they can use Iraq as another Afghanistan or a staging area from which to attack Israel or other countries, they are badly mistaken."
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States, in a switch, will hold talks with the two nations.
Obama on Friday will call for tougher Iran sanctions, more bilateral diplomacy and declare he is for leaving all military options on the table. He will underscore the need for energy independence so that U.S. Mideast policy is not anchored to the country's huge appetite for fossil fuels.
Obama traveled to Israel for the first time in January 2006. He allotted time on his official trip to visit projects sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Chicago and the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese.
Obama's camp is well-aware that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz -- in a recurring feature ranking the 2008 U.S. presidential candidates or people who may run on how good they are for Israel -- puts him last on its list. Former GOP New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tops its ranking, followed by Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Clinton, Al Gore, Sam Brownback and the others, with Obama at the end. Part of the reason for the low score may be that the others have worked the Israeli street for years and Obama is just an unknown factor when it comes to Israel.
But let me share something. Last August, Obama was in Cape Town, South Africa, at a time when Israel was being criticized for overreacting for its military attacks in Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Obama was speaking to a group at a cultural institution called The Center for the Book, which provided a friendly venue for the Illinois Democratic. The crowd, clearly hostile to Israel, expected Obama to bash Israel on Lebanon. He did not. They were surprised.
They just did not know Obama well enough to realize who they were dealing with.