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Jewish Groups Stir Controversy in Efforts to Influence Candidates’ Middle East Policy

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2008

As the 2008 presidential campaign has proceeded, a number of Jewish organizations and leaders have been harshly critical of any divergence from what they perceive as a pro-Israel Middle East policy.  
A confidential memo questioning Senator Barack Obama’s potential approach to the Middle East was distributed in January by staff members at the American Jewish Committee. The memo, written by Debra Feuer, the Committee counsel for special projects, noted that Obama’s approach to dealing with Iran “raises questions.” It also suggested that Obama placed the burden of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict primarily upon Israel. Quoting Obama’s statement early in the campaign that “no one has suffered more than the Palestinians,” Feuer questioned Obama’s potential as a peace broker.  
“He appears to believe the Israelis bear the burden of taking the risky steps for peace, and that the violence Israel has received in return does not shift that burden,” Feuer wrote. She also expressed concern about Obama’s encouragement of diplomatic engagement with Iran.  
One of Senator Obama’s chief Jewish backers, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) argued that the memo reflected “political bias on the part of the drafter of the memo, rather than the facts.” He said he took particular issue with the idea that Obama’s calls for diplomacy should cause alarm within Jewish circles, given that a number of Jewish lawmakers have advocated the same position. “The whole notion that if a lawmaker supports renewed diplomacy with Iran, that that somehow suggests a position that the American Jewish community should be concerned about — well, put me on the top of that list,” Wexler said.  
Hillary Clinton’s campaign has questioned Obama’s commitment to U.S.-Israel relations. Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Clinton, discussed the New York senator’s strong support for Israel during a conference call in January with leaders of major American Jewish organizations. During the call, Lewis contrasted Clinton’s pro-Israel credentials with those of Obama. To make her point, she said that Obama’s “chief foreign policy adviser” is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is not Obama’s “chief foreign policy adviser.” That is the job of three former staff members of President Clinton. But Brzezinski, who says he has advised Obama “only on occasion,” is unpopular with Jewish leaders, in part because of his endorsement of the book The Israel Lobby.  
Negative e-mails about the Obama campaign have assaulted not only the alleged role of Brzezinski but of Obama advisers such as Robert Malley, a former Clinton negotiator at the 2000 Camp David talks who has since written articles sympathetic to the Palestinians. Addressing such attacks, Obama criticized some elements in the pro-Israel community that he says equate being pro-Israel with being pro-Likud. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel,” Obama told a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland, “and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”  
Editorially, The Forward (Feb. 22, 2008) criticized those who have assaulted Obama’s advisers, in particular Robert Malley: “Most recently, the attacks have focused almost obsessively on one particular Obama adviser, Robert Malley. Raised in Paris by a left-wing Syrian Jewish father and an American Jewish mother, Malley handled Middle East affairs in the Clinton-era National Security Council. Since the failed Camp David talks of 2000, Malley has written several controversial articles arguing that Yasser Arafat did not bear sole responsibility for the talks’ failure, but that Washington and Jerusalem bear part of the blame. For this he has been labeled ‘a rabid hater of Israel,’ in the words of The New Republic. The real Malley is a soft-spoken Jewish intellectual who has strong ties to Israel and believes deeply in ... peace. He is no ‘hater’ of Israel. And yet through the magic of the Internet, he has become a global punching bag ...”  
There is some concern that tax-exempt, non-partisan Jewish groups are engaged in what can be viewed as partisan political activities. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, speaking while in Israel, voiced disapproval of the tenor of the presidential campaign and, according to The Forward (Feb. 22, 2008), “raised eyebrows both in Washington and Jerusalem with what was perceived as a swipe at Obama.” At a Feb. 12 press conference in Jerusalem, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Hoenlein said: “All the talk about change, but without defining what that change should be, is an opening for all kind of mischief. Of course, Obama has plenty of Jewish supporters and there are many Jews around him. But there is a legitimate concern over the zeitgeist around the campaign.”  
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, was in Jerusalem at the time of Hoenlein’s remarks and, according to The Forward, “... has found himself increasingly distressed by — and willing to publicly counter — remarks made by other Jewish leaders about the Illinois senator ... Yoffie strongly condemned statements by Hoenlein ... Yoffie told The Forward he felt that Hoenlein’s comments had had a profound effect on Israeli politicians and that he was deeply troubled by them. ... ‘I was a bit stunned, and as I walked through the Knesset and heard people saying that American Jews were attacking Obama, that made me more uncomfortable still ... Everybody who read those comments took them as an attack on Obama by the American Jewish community, and that’s why it’s crucial we need to avoid these comments.’”  
Those Jewish groups which are attempting to impose their own Middle East policy upon the presidential candidates are coming under increasing criticism within the Jewish community. Editorially, The Forward (Feb. 29/March 7, 2008) expressed this view: “Yes, Obama has voiced sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. He has also worked closely with the Jewish community to help Israel. He has made a practice of listening to both sides ... He doesn’t think that sympathizing with Palestinians and supporting Israel need to be mutually exclusive ... We second that, and we’ll take it a step further. The best way to show friendship to Israel is to help it achieve peace through dialogue with the Palestinians. The candidate who does this best should be the choice of pro-Israel voters.”

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