Here is a reported transcript of remarks Obama made in February 2008. I resurrect this transcript because it is the most candid,
spontaneous, and detailed record of his views about the Middle East, the Moslem world, and various personalities. Reading it, bear in mind that he is responding defensively to questions about "viral emails" alleging that he had anti-Israel advisers, at the height of the primary battle with Clinton.
Jewish Telegraphic Aagency (JTA)
February 25, 2008
We've received a rough transcript that came from the Obama campaign of a closed meeting that the candidate held Sunday in Cleveland with about 100 Jewish communal leaders. Whoever recorded the remarks was only able to get Obama's answers, not the actual questions from the audience.
For the most part, Obama sought to reassure the audience – on Israel, Iran, his church, his pastor, his foreign policy advisers, his religion. At the same time, he picked a few spots to push back against some of his critics in the Jewish community (see the stuff about the folly of equating pro-Likud with pro-Israel and the ability of Israelis to conducts a robust debate over security/diplomatic strategy).
Here are the key quotes (the summaries in all caps are mine, but not the typos):
...ISRAEL: "...I also expect to work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies who are intent on its destruction. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes, we saw their intentions with the katusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006 and we see it today in the Kasams that Hamas fires into Israel every single day from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The Defense cooperation between the United States to Israel has been a model of success and I believe it can be deepened and strengthened."
...BRZEZINSKI: "...I know Brzezinski he's not one of my key advisors. I've had lunch with him once, I've exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce for a speech on Iraq. .... I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally."
YOU CAN BE PRO-ISRAEL WITHOUT BEING PRO-LIKUD: "The others that you refer to are former members of the Clinton administration. Somebody like a Tony Lake, the former National Security Adviser, or Susan Rice -these are not anti-Israel individuals. ...There's no inkling that there has been anything in anything that they've written that would suggest they're not stalwart friends of Israel. This is where I get to be honest and I hope I'm not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have a honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress. And frankly some of the commentary that I've seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is non military or non belligerent or doesn't talk about just crushing the opposition that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we're going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about. None of these emails talk about the fact that on the other side, members of my national finance committee, like Lester Crown, are considered about has hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country. So, there's got to be some balance here. I've got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bipartisan consensus that I raised or that we talked about in terms of being pro-Israel. There's never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think its important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people's concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israeli lobby raised, but he's not one of my central advisers."
IN SEARCH OF AN UNROMANTIC PEACE PLAN: "Well here's my starting orientation is A - Israel's security is sacrosanct, is non negotiable. That's point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we're going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we're in. Number three that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn't mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It's going to have to be contiguous, its going to have to work its going to have to function in some way. That's in Israel's interest by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat. So those are the starting points of my orientation. My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we're going to move forward on a improvement of relations and a sustainable peace. The question that I will be asking any advisor is how does it achieve the goal of Israel's security and how does it achieve the goal of sustainability over the long term and I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we're going to achieve that.
THE PALESTINIANS NEED TO KEEP THEIR COMMITMENTS: I have consistently said this, and I have said this to Palestinians, I said this when I was in Ramallah, that you cannot fault Israel for being concerned about any peace agreement if the Palestinian state or Palestinian Authority or Palestinian leadership does not seem to be able to follow through on its commitments. And I think the approach we have to take with respect to negations is that you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through and that's a position that I have consistently taken and the one I will take with me to the White House."
IF ISRAELIS CAN DEBATE THESE ISSUES HONESTLY, SO CAN WE: One last point I'll make on this, in terms of advisors and the kind of debate I think is fruitful, one of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It's very ironic. I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he's dealing with these people every day. There's good and there's bad, and he was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and we made this miscalculation and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that's not good for our security situation. There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I'm sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the U.S. pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I'm saying though is that actually ultimately should be our goal, to have that same clear eyed view about how we approach these issues.
SURE, SOME JEWS THINK THE GOP IS BETTER ON ISRAEL – BUT THEY'RE WRONG: "Well look, the Jewish community is a) diverse, b) has interests beyond Israel. There is a ... the tradition of the Jewish community in America as a progressive force that is concerned with the poor, is concerned with the vulnerable, is concerned with children, is concerned with civil rights, is concerned with civil liberties. Those are values that I believe are much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can't be forgotten. I think that what I've seen, and you would know better than I would, is that to the extent that there's been bleeding over into the Republican Party, it all has to do with this issue of Israel. And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences George Bush's policies. The proof is in the point. I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel's security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush's foreign policy. It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq. We have spent what will soon be close to a trillion dollars strengthening Iran, expanding their influence. How is that helpful to Israel? How is that helpful to Israel? You can't make that argument. And so the problem that we've seen in U.S. foreign policy generally has been this notion that being full of bluster and rattling sabers and being quick on the draw somehow makes you more secure. And keep in mind that I don't know anybody in the Democratic Party, and I will say this for Hillary Clinton and I will say this for myself, who has indicated in any way that we would tolerate and allow to fester terrorist threats, that we wouldn't hunt down, capture, or kill terrorists that haven't been supportive of Israel capturing or killing terrorists. So it's not like we're a bunch of folks asking to hold hands and sing Kumbiya. When Israel launched its counterattack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, I was in South Africa at the time, a place that was not particularly friendly to Israel at the time and I was asked by the press, what did you think? And I said, if somebody invades my country or is firing rockets into my country or kidnapping my soldiers, I will not tolerate that. And there's no nation in the world that would. So I don't see this softness within the Democratic Party on these issues. The question is, can we use our military power wisely? Can we be strategic in terms of how we move forward? And I think that is profoundly in the interests of Israel and in the interests of U.S. security."
WHAT HAMAS NEEDS TO DO: "Now again, going back to my experiences in Israel and the discussions I've had with security officials there, I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what's going on and the point is that with respect to Hamas, you can't have a conversation with somebody who doesn't think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not going to be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That's not the circumstance that we're in right now. I've only called on men I think, I've got to get at least one female question... well, it's just because I didn't see any ... in fairness to me, you guys didn't raise your hands, ladies. This is how I end up getting into trouble here. Go ahead."
LEARNING FROM INDONESIA: "Now keep in mind, Indonesia is not the Arab world. So its brand of Islam was always very different. Women were riding on Vespas and going to work, and people weren't wearing headscarves until very recently - that was actually an import from the Middle East. But here's what's interesting about Indonesia, it's a good case study. It had had a very tolerant, mild brand of Islam all the time that I was living there and basically up and thru 97. And what happened was that you'll recall the Asian financial crisis hit them extraordinarily hard. Their gross domestic product contracted by 30% - they had the equivalent of a Great Depression, but this was a country that was already extraordinarily poor. So, there was a direct correlation between the collapse of that economy and the rise of fundamentalist Islam inside of Indonesia. Partly it was exported by Saudi Wahhabist schools that were sent in and financing schools there, and suddenly you started seeing head scarves on the streets and Islamic organizations that were parroting some of the fundamentalist and more fanatical brands of Islam that we associate with the Middle East. And the reason I raise that point is that although people will often say, well terrorists are drawn from the middle class and just being poor doesn't mean that you're automatically ascribe to violent jihadist tendencies. What is absolutely true is that in the Arab world and in the Muslim world, I do think there is a correlation between the degree to which those communities function properly, give people hope, give people a sense of direction, give children education, and how vulnerable they are to these violent ideologies."
I AM NOT NAIVE: "So what lessons do we learn from that then? I am not naive. There is a hard core of jihadist fundamentalists who we can't negotiate with. We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them. That's the military aspects of dealing with this phenomenon. Now somebody like a Richard Clarke would estimate that the hard core jihadists would gladly blow up this room maybe it's 30,000 people, maybe it's 40,000 people, maybe it's 50,000 people. But it is a finite number. And that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed. So all the things I've talked about in the past - improving our intelligence capacity, improving our alliances, rolling up financial support, improving our homeland security, making sure that we have strike forces that are effective - that's all the military, intelligence, police work that's required.
"The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims, who are along a spectrum of belief. Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last 7 years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women's rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrasas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable.
"Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril. I think all we do then, is further isolate it and feed the kinds of jihadist fanaticism that I think can be so... "