David Axelrod laughed.
We were in the spin room following last month's debate in Philadelphia, and I had just asked Barack Obama's chief strategist to respond to a statement made by a top Hamas adviser endorsing Obama's candidacy, and favorably comparing the young Illinois Senator to John F. Kennedy.
"I like John Kennedy too," Axelrod responded. "That's about the only thing we have in common with this gentleman from Hamas. We all agree that John Kennedy was a great president, and it's flattering when anybody says that Barack Obama would follow in his footsteps."
Just a few days later, Obama was asked, at a diner stopover, about Jimmy Carter's meeting with Hamas, and his response was, "I'm just going to eat my waffle."
Last week, Obama described it as a "smear" that John McCain, in response to a question, correctly noted that a spokesman for the terrorist group publicly expressed support for Obama. But on Friday, McCain was further vindicated when the Times of London reported that Obama adviser Robert Malley had to sever ties with the campaign, because the newspaper was about to report that the prominent critic of Israel had been regularly engaging in talks with Hamas.
The Obama campaign has suggested that Malley's role with the campaign was "informal." But this is the same campaign that tried to downplay Obama's 20-year relationship with Jeremiah Wright (who, among other incendiary remarks, referred to Israel as a "dirty word").
Why was there a need to sever ties if none really existed? And if Obama is so utterly opposed to dealing with Hamas, as he has stated publicly, then why would he have an adviser, even an "informal" one, who was doing just that?
THROUGHOUT THE CAMPAIGN, Obama and his staffers have dismissed any scrutiny of his views on Israel with a blend of outrage and sarcasm, as if his record of support for Israel is so extensive, so undeniable, that anybody who raises doubts about his actual views is launching an inquisition.
But as is the case with most issues, Obama is such a blank slate, and has such a thin public record, that voters are forced to parse his statements, sift through his past, and examine those he chooses to associate with to get a better sense of his underlying philosophy.
Obama has touted his foreign policy approach as a break from "conventional Washington thinking." As part of this approach, Obama has boasted of his willingness to engage in direct talks with our enemies, including Iran, without preconditions.
Iran has consistently been deemed the leading state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department, has vowed to annihilate Israel within the context of seeking nuclear weapons, and has helped finance Hamas. Why should it be beyond the pale to question the earnestness of Obama's vow not to negotiate with Hamas, when he has promised, as part of his sweeping program for change, to negotiate with its patron, which shares the same ultimate goal?
It's no secret that within elite liberal foreign policy circles, one of the primary laments is that the United States hinders peace in the Middle East by being too reflexively pro-Israel.
So when a liberal politician comes along and assures that same crowd that he is going to do away with "conventional Washington thinking," it is only fair to wonder whether he is sending an unspoken signal that he also plans to tilt the balance of U.S. policy in the Middle East in a direction that is more favorable to the Palestinians and more critical of Israel.
ALI ABUNIMAH, a Palestinian activist from Chicago, insists that at least in the recent past, Obama wanted to see U.S. policy move in that direction.
"In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a University of Chicago professor," Abunimah has written. "On that occasion and others Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
Abunimah says that as late as 2004, during his tough primary race, Obama praised him for his activism, and apologized, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front."
The Obama campaign has disputed Abunimah's account, and there is no audio to back him up. But Abunimah has released a photo of Obama breaking bread with Edward Said, one of the leading anti-Israel intellectuals of the 20th century, at a 1998 Arab community event in Chicago.
Furthermore, Obama has ties with Rashid Khalidi, who currently serves as the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. Khalidi, who once served as a flak for Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, is an active proponent of the view that U.S. policy is too biased in favor of Israel.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Obama spoke at a going away party in honor of Khalidi in Chicago in 2003:
His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases... It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation -- a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table," but around "this entire world."
WITH THIS PAST as prologue, many of the statements (or omissions) Obama has made on the campaign trail raise questions about his true stance on Israel.
When Obama said, "nobody's suffering more than the Palestinian people," did he really mean as he later clarified, that nobody was suffering more from the failure of the Palestinian leadership? Or was he trying to start a "conversation" about whether the U.S. is too focused on Israeli suffering, and not enough on the suffering of the Palestinians?
When he was asked by Brian Williams in a debate last year to name the top three allies of the United States, why did he filibuster the question without naming Israel?
When he said in February, "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel," what did he mean by "pro-Likud"?
There is an active strain within the liberal foreign policy community that believes that since Hamas was democratically elected and controls Gaza, any peace process would have to include talks with their leaders. When Carter met with Hamas last month, Obama was slow to criticize the former president. "I'm not going to comment on former President Carter," Obama said at first. "He is a private citizen, and you know, it's not my place to discuss who or -- who he shouldn't meet with." (Obama, interestingly, didn't employ the private citizen dodge when he called on NBC to fire Don Imus last year in the wake of the controversy over the radio show host's racially insensitive remarks.)
While Obama did eventually criticize Carter's trip, it was only after much prodding, and he still didn't consider the question important enough to disrupt his waffle-eating experience.
On a number of other issues, there has been a pattern of Obama saying one thing on the campaign trail that was undercut by his advisers. We saw that when his economic adviser assured the Canadians that Obama wasn't really serious about the anti-NAFTA rhetoric he was spewing in Ohio.
We saw that when former adviser Samantha Power, speaking of Obama's plans to withdraw troops out of Iraq, said Obama wouldn't "rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate." And now we have Obama's public opposition to Hamas undercut by the fact that an adviser is meeting with them.
SO IS IT REALLY a stretch to wonder whether Obama would eventually support talks with the terrorist group, despite his public pronouncements to the contrary?
This is not a theoretical matter. Ahmed Yousef, the same Hamas adviser who said that the terrorist group supports Obama, wrote a Washington Post op-ed last June arguing for engagement with Hamas.
The group is obviously embarking on a strategy, similar to the one Arafat pursued during the Oslo peace process, of making public overtures of peace abroad, duping naive Western leaders into granting them legitimacy and the financial aid that comes along with it, while continuing to support terrorism at home. Clearly, Hamas views Obama as an easy mark.
The interesting thing about Obama's candidacy is that his lack of experience, and the mixed messages he sends, enable close observers to come to drastically different conclusions as to what kind of policies he would support as president.
Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Jewish magazine Tikkun, said, "Based on my conversations with Obama, I have a very strong belief that he shares the Tikkun perspective..." But the staunchly pro-Israel Marty Peretz assured "friends of Israel" that they could trust Obama.
Abunimah, the Palestinian activist from Chicago, is disappointed that Obama has sold out to the pro-Israel Lobby, while Hamas adviser Yousef chalked up Obama's pro-Israel statements to election year posturing, and declared that the terrorist group still wants him to win.
Obama is running for the most powerful job in the world without much of a public record of which to speak. Yet those who demand to know a little bit more about the candidate by scrutinizing his statements and relationships are arrogantly dismissed as engaging in "smears" and being divisive for refusing to simply take him at his word.
Welcome to the new kind of politics.
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