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Democrats launch major pro-Obama pushback among Jews

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

June 7, 2011 | 12:19 pm

President Obama is a stalwart friend of Israel.

That’s the message some top Democratic Jewish figures are promoting to push back against the notion that Obama is out of step with the pro-Israel and Jewish communities.

Within the next two weeks, two figures associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—past AIPAC president Amy Friedkin and board member Howard Green—will be among the hosts for a major fundraising event for the president, charging $25,000 per couple. The target of 40 couples—bringing in $1 million—is close to being met, insiders say. Notably, the organizers have received a nod from the AIPAC board’s inner circle to solicit donations.

Last week, top Jewish Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), blitzed the media with Op-Eds denying any split with the president in the wake of his call last month to base Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

And the White House has taken the unusual step of posting a lengthy defense of Obama’s Israel record on its website.

Some of the Op-Eds were coordinated, insiders said, and meetings will take place over the coming weeks to hammer home the message.

“The White House has a very strong record to defend, and the objectives are misrepresented and in some cases maligned, so yes the White house is pushing back,” said Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the 2008 campaign.

Wexler wrote one of two pro-Obama Op-Eds in the South Florida Sun Sentinel in recent days. Florida, a swing state with a substantive Jewish population, has been a key Jewish battleground in recent years.

Republicans have taken notice, and they have attributed the pushback in part to the success of attacks on the president by conservative groups. The Republican Jewish Coalition has targeted Jewish voters with automated phone calls, and a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel is running an ad thanking congressional Democrats it claims have split with Obama over his Israel policy.

“Clearly, the White House is playing defense after President Obama inserted himself into Middle East policy that put him at odds with Americans who support a strong Israel,” Reince Preibus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in an e-mail to JTA.

Democrats say two distortions have fueled their fury: The notions that Obama broke with U.S. policy to force Israel back to the pre-1967 lines and, as a result, that Jewish voters, a key base, is slipping away from the Democrats. A flurry of media stories in recent weeks have suggested that Obama is losing Jewish donor support, although few past donors to the president are reported to be reconsidering their support.

Where the Jews stand on Obama matters not just because of the Jewish vote, which is significant in key swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, but also because of Jewish money. The 2012 presidential election will be the first since a Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate giving to candidates. The Obama campaign has said it will need more money than ever because big business tends to lean Republican.

Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and estimates over the years have reckoned that Jewish donors provide between one-third and two-thirds of the party’s money.

“Every two or four years Republicans say, ‘This is the year Jewish voters, or donors, or activists, are going to trend Republican,’ ” said Steve Rabinowitz, a strategist who advises Democrats and Jewish groups. “Every November it turns out not to be true.”

Republicans made clear that they see a new opening now given the “1967 lines” brouhaha.

“We’re stepping up our game with Jewish donors and other potential Jewish supporters that feel like Obama turned his back on them,” an RNC official who is not authorized to speak on the record told JTA.

Obama’s appointment earlier this year of Wasserman Schultz as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee came in part in response to concerns that Republicans were making headway among Jews. Wasserman Schultz also contributed an Obama defense to the South Florida Sun Sentinel over the weekend.

“They’re taking proactive steps they ensure they get in front of this,” said a Democratic operative close to the Jewish community who requested anonymity. “They’re explaining to the Jewish audience what’s going on so it doesn’t become a problem down the road. It’s better to get ahead of this and tell people what’s actually been said than play catch-up.”

The White House posting begins by addressing the “1967 lines” controversy.

“This territorial formula, which has been used in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for decades, means that the parties themselves will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967 to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” it said, adding that the formula “is fully consistent with the positions of earlier U.S. Administrations, including the 2004 Bush-Sharon letters.”

In fact, while previous administrations—including President George W. Bush in his letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—have acknowledged the 1967 lines as an aspiration for the Palestinians, Obama has gone further in embracing them as a basis for talks. That frustrated Israelis who say it narrows their options by setting parameters.

In the same May 19 Middle East policy speech, Obama also set restrictive parameters for Palestinians, for instance, in declaring that their state would not be militarized.

The difference between Obama and his predecessors is not as drastic as Republicans have portrayed, however, especially in statements like the one recently from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that refer only to the “1967 lines” without noting “mutually agreed swaps.”

“It’s not a good comment that the other side seized control of the narrative by lying,” one prominent Jewish Democrat said.

The White House is convening meetings of top Democrats in the coming weeks and months to coordinate message discipline.

Jewish Democrats are frustrated with their inability to bury perceptions that Obama has distanced himself from Israel, noting especially that officials in both countries agree that the defense relationship is closer than ever.

“I expected my attention to be in the Midwest, not in the Middle East,” is how Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff who just began his term as Chicago mayor, began his Op-Ed in The Washington Post last week.

Democrats say their concerns extend to the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which for decades has been predicated on bipartisan support. Wasserman Schultz forcefully raised the issue in a meeting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held with top Jewish representatives of both parties last month.

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, shot back with a public letter accusing Wasserman Schultz of trying to gag debate by suppressing legitimate criticism of Obama.

Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, dismissed talk of a “gag order.”

“They have the right to say whatever they want, but Democrats have the right to say it’s not wise,” he said.

Noah Pollak, the director of the Executive Committee for Israel, has acknowledged that Obama’s policies are not substantially different from his predecessors. The president’s problem, he said, has more to do with optics that suggest his hostility to the Netanyahu government.

Pollak noted that the 1967 lines parameters came on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit.

“Obama has proven over and over again he is incapable of having a good meeting with the prime minister,” Pollak said. “The issue is why do this and tell the prime minister just before he’s about to fly to Washington? It guarantees a sour visit.”

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