WITH polls showing a tightening presidential race, a bombshell might tip the balance - and that bombshell's name could be Rashid Khalidi.
The Los Angeles Times has possession of a video of Barack Obama addressing a 2003 farewell dinner for Khalidi, who was leaving Chicago for New York City, where he was to assume the Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia University. Also at the dinner: Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, former bomb-planting members of the Weathermen.
Despite much interest in the tape, the Times refuses to release it, saying that it obtained the footage on the condition it not be broadcast.
Khalidi is a noted scholar with a long list of academic publications. But he's also a longtime Palestinian activist, who has built his career disseminating Arab-nationalist propaganda. He calls Israel an "apartheid system in creation." He's been a fierce detractor of the "Zionist lobby" here in the United States.
In the late 1980s, Khalidi served in Lebanon as director of WAFA, a Palestinian news agency under de facto control of Yasser Arafat's PLO. He has called attacks on Israeli soldiers by Palestinian civilians legitimate "resistance."
At the dinner, according to the Times, Obama said that his many conversations with Khalidi and his wife Mona 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."
The Obama campaign has defensively downplayed any tie between the candidate and Khalidi: "Ugly insinuations about Barack Obama's relationship with a former neighbor and university colleague . . . are completely false."
Obama himself says that Khalidi "is not one of my advisers; he's not one of my foreign-policy people. His kids went to the Lab school where my kids go as well. He is a respected scholar, although he vehemently disagrees with a lot of Israel's policy."
It is certainly true Obama's stated views on Israel are very different from Khalidi's and that we should be wary of guilt by association. But the nature of the relationship between the two - the LA Times describes them as "friends and dinner companions" and Khalidi held a fund-raiser at his home for Obama's unsuccessful congressional bid in 2000 - is nonetheless a fair ground for inquiry.
Because Obama is a new figure on the political stage with a scant record in foreign affairs, it is especially hard for voters to know the depth of his convictions and who and what has shaped them over the years. So his past associations assume greater significance. What is more, Khalidi is no isolated case, but one of many Obama associates with views far from the American mainstream and far from Obama's professed positions. Along with Khalidi, Ayers and Dohrn, there is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the congregation that Obama belonged to for 20 years.
All of which makes the videotape of a banquet attended by three out of these four figures more intriguing and potentially relevant. What exactly did Obama say? What did others say? According to the LA Times, along with speeches condemning Israeli "terrorism," poetry denouncing the Jewish state was read at the event. How did Obama react? Did he applaud? Did he walk out? Or did he sit impassively? These are legitimate questions to ask. With less than a week to go before Americans make a momentous choice, voters deserve answers.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is a visiting scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.