Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama stepped up his outreach to potential Jewish backers this week, with an address to pro-Israel supporters in Chicago and the announcement of a fundraising push in South Florida.
Speaking at a policy forum held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Chicago on March 2, the Illinois senator delivered his first presidential campaign speech on Israel. In the warmly received talk, Obama echoed the concerns of Jewish organizations over Iran’s nuclear program and the Palestinian unity deal.
“We should all be concerned about the agreement negotiated among Palestinians in Mecca last month,” Obama told Jewish constituents in the Windy City. “The reports of this agreement suggest that Hamas, Fatah and independent ministers would sit in a government together, under a Hamas prime minister, without any recognition of Israel, without a renunciation of violence, and with only an ambiguous promise to ‘respect’ previous agreements…. We must tell the Palestinians this is not good enough.”
At the same time, Obama argued that the United States should be taking more aggressive diplomatic steps on several fronts in the Middle East, and he appeared to take a subtle swipe at the Bush administration for reportedly blocking Israel from negotiating with Syria.
Following up his speech in Chicago and his appearance at next week’s Aipac conference in Washington, Obama plans later this month to make his entrance onto the Democratic stage of South Florida with five big-ticket fundraisers slated for March 25. The region boasts more than 300,000 Jewish residents, making it the third-largest Jewish population center in the country.
Obama’s path in the Sunshine State is being cleared by Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, whose heavily Jewish district contains parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties. Wexler announced last week that he will serve as co-chairman of Obama’s Florida campaign.
“[Obama] may not be unique in this regard, but for me, somebody’s passion and stance on Israel is essential for me to get engaged in their campaign,” Wexler said in an interview with the Forward. “We’ve had a very specific conversation about the American-Israeli relationship, the challenges relative to the Palestinians, to Syria and most especially to Iran… and I am absolutely convinced that President Obama will be a historically strong president for Israel.”
Two other Democratic lawmakers in the area, Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings, are backing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Obama’s Jewish push comes on the eve of Washington’s biggest pro-Israel summit, the annual Aipac conference, which attracts thousands of pro-Israel activists and political donors from across the country. According to one Democratic insider contacted by the Forward, the senator’s camp intended to get a jump on the gathering, which will be crowded with presidential hopefuls from both parties.
In recent weeks, Obama has appeared to make inroads into political turf previously claimed by the Clinton juggernaut, including red-carpet Hollywood, which forked over $1.3 million to the Illinois senator’s campaign last month at a high-profile fundraiser hosted by DreamWorks executives Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Obama has recently narrowed Clinton’s lead among voters, with a poll of the Democratic primary electorate conducted by The Washington Post showing that the Illinois lawmaker had jumped to 24% from 17% while the former first lady dropped to 36% from 41%.
Obama has strong support from Chicago’s Jewish Democratic establishment, which is solidly backing him over Clinton, according to several Democratic insiders.
“It looks like everyone with any degree of Democratic/liberal leaning who is prominent in [Chicago] politics seems to be on Barack’s side,” said Jack Levin, a prominent Chicago lawyer who came to know Obama when they both taught at the University of Chicago Law School.
Levin, who sits on the national board of governors of the American Jewish Committee and is a Midwest executive committee member of Aipac, said that while he has supported both Clinton and Obama in the past, he is backing Obama for president.
Other Jewish supporters in Chicago include Obama’s national finance chair, business mogul Penny Pritzker, a major Democratic donor and fundraiser whose family founded Hyatt Hotels ; Joan Harris, a leading Chicago philanthropist whose late husband, Irving Harris, served as chairman of the Liberty Acorn mutual fund, and billionaire financier Lester Crown, a top supporter and a leader of the city’s Jewish federation.
“He’s beloved [by the Chicago Jewish community]. I can’t tell you the passion that’s behind it,” said Anne Wedner, an Aipac supporter who spearheaded a get-out-the-vote effort during Obama’s 2004 Senate primary campaign.
One potential roadblock on the path of Obama’s Jewish push emerged on Tuesday, when The New York Times reported on controversy surrounding the lawmaker’s religious mentor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church.
According to the Times, the Senator’s camp disinvited Wright from speaking at Obama’s presidential announcement due to concerns about his Afro-centric teachings and past associations.
“When his enememies found out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli” to visit Muammar el-Qaddafi, Wright recalled, “with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.”
In last week’s Aipac address, Obama argued that “tough-minded” diplomatic engagement with Iran, combined with sanctions, should be America’s “primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons,” but that America’s leaders “should take no option, including military action, off the table.”
The lawmaker seemed to be criticizing the Bush administration’s reported efforts to block Israel from opening peace talks with Syria.
“We also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests,” Obama said. “No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”
The speech is believed to have been shaped by adviser Dan Shapiro, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. Shapiro joined the campaign last month to assist with Middle East policy and Jewish outreach. Most recently, Shapiro served as deputy chief of staff to Florida’s Democratic senator, Bill Nelson.