Wexler’s Move May Lead to More Active Role for Think Tanks

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 21, 2009, issue of October 30, 2009.
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Florida Democrat Robert Wexler’s recent decision to leave Congress and join a Washington policy center dealing with Middle East peace left many in this status-crazed city baffled. It is not every day that a successful politician chooses to resign midterm.

An aftershock was also felt in the smaller think-tank community, where the entry of a new player could scramble the hierarchy of those struggling to shape American policy toward the region.

“To have Wexler think he can have more influence through a think-tank than in Congress is quite a compliment to the think-tank world,” joked Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Wexler himself sought to brush off any such thought, and made clear that his move was a personal decision, not a sign of “any broader theme.” But in joining the Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation in January, Wexler is in fact re-launching a policy center that has been dormant for several years. The old offices in downtown Washington, a short walk from the White House, will be reoccupied, and S. Daniel Abraham — the founder and funder — has pledged to provide the necessary money to renew the center’s operations.

Before taking the plunge, Wexler spoke with President Obama and consulted with senior administration officials dealing with the Middle East. According to sources aware of the discussions, the administration officials expressed interest in having the congressman use his ties with Israel and Arab countries to promote ideas supporting the peace process.

This is how Wexler sees his role, too: as a player, not an observer.

“I see the center as an institute that will work more on promoting negotiations and less on research,” Wexler said in an October 16 interview with the Forward. Wexler said that his goal is to turn the center into a “robust public policy institute that engages in the multifaceted work of laying the groundwork for peace in the Middle East.”

Some established think tanks choose not to actively pursue policy, but rather to research and suggest options to decision makers. Satloff’s institute, known for its pro-Israel centrist views, does not seek “an operational role overseas,” but rather prefers to influence the policy debate at home.

This choice allows the institute greater freedom to express critical views of the administration, as became apparent at the group’s annual conference in October. The conference opened with a panel of pundits and analysts blasting Obama’s actions in the Middle East, and continued with other voices critical of the administration’s approach to Iran and the Israeli-Arab conflict. The institute’s former leading scholar, Dennis Ross, who joined the Obama administration as a senior adviser dealing with the Middle East, was not in attendance, nor was any other administration official.

Another leading think tank, the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, also focuses on research rather than active peacemaking.

Still, the activist field could get more crowded. Reports yet to be confirmed suggest that the Israel Policy Forum could merge with the Center for American Progress, a prominent liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. IPF, beset by financial difficulties and the recent loss of its Washington representative, has been searching for a new home. If the merger takes place, CAP also is expected to take a step away from researching policy issues relating to the Middle East and toward actively promoting negotiations.

That certainly is Wexler’s vision for his new role. One of the main assets he brings is his close relationship with the White House. He was the first Jewish lawmaker to back Obama as a candidate, and later took on a lot of the campaign’s heavy lifting with the Jewish community.

“Wexler will be treated by leaders in the region as the person who has Obama’s ear,” said Daniel Levy, co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East task force. “He is close to Obama, is well accepted in the Jewish community and knows everyone in Congress.”

Being close to the views of the administration could help the rejuvenated think tank play a role as an active back channel with key players in the region, one that would convey ideas from the administration informally before those ideas become official policy. Having such an outlet could also be beneficial for the administration, which has been struggling to establish an informal communication channel where differences can be aired in a nonconfrontational way.

“The center,” Wexler said, “will advocate policies that will be consistent with those of the U.S. administration. I enjoy good relations with the Obama administration and intend to work in concert with policymakers.”

When Abraham, a diet food magnate, founded the Center for Middle East Peace in 1989, it quickly became a driving force in promoting the idea of negotiated peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Abraham, with his close ties to Israel’s Shimon Peres, and former congressman Wayne Owens, who headed the center, traveled the globe and were a prime address for regional leaders wishing to communicate with Washington. Owens’s death in 2002 marked the beginning of the center’s decline and in recent years it has had a much less visible role.

That is about to change.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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