What’s Behind White House Strategy To Woo U.S. Jews

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 26, 2010, issue of June 04, 2010.
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As the Obama administration’s charm offensive toward the Jewish community enters its second month, a clearer picture is emerging of the White House’s strategy for recouping lost ground with American Jews on Israel.

First and foremost, the administration is touting its strengthening of military cooperation and security ties with Israel, even as public clashes recede, for now, over expanding Israeli-Jewish settlements in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Beyond that, administration officials are also reaching over the heads of the community’s national organizational figures and attempting to connect with individuals who influence Jews at the grass-roots level.

There are no recent poll data that might show how this strategy is working. But supporters of the president say they have noticed a decrease in criticism coming from Jewish communal leaders.

Military cooperation, an issue usually discussed privately between the governments of Israel and the United States, has been a key theme of the administration’s outreach effort. In public speeches and in private meetings, Obama administration officials have provided Jewish audiences with a detailed list of U.S. measures taken to strengthen Israel.

At the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference in Washington, held on May 3, the administration’s senior Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, in a rare public appearance, said that Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security was reflected “in the billions of dollars we provide annually in security assistance to Israel; in the reinvigorated consultations we have undertaken to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region; in the joint training exercises we pursue; in technological cooperation as we work to develop innovations in missile defense, air defense and short-range rocket defense, and in regular defense and security exchanges where we benefit from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

Democratic lawmakers reinforced this message at a May 20 Capitol Hill press conference, in which leading members of the House of Representatives declared their support for Obama’s plan to fund Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system with $205 million of aid from the United States. The new missile system is designed to block rockets and short-range missiles, including Qassams and Katyushas.

“The president’s unprecedented request and the House’s quick approval speak for themselves: Both President Obama and the Congress are actively and unshakably committed to Israel’s security,” said California Democrat Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Steve Rabinowitz, who served as an aide in the Clinton administration and now consults with many Jewish groups, said that the virtue of this approach is that “it works almost across the entire community.” While Jews may differ in their approach to peacemaking, almost all agree on the need to support Israel militarily and maintain the strategic partnership between the two nations, he said.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, acknowledged that the administration’s recent public emphasis on its strategic support for Israel had been “a factor” in calming Jewish qualms. “But ultimately this administration has a particular point of view concerning issues such as Middle East peace and Jerusalem on which there are major, major differences with the Jewish community,” he said.

Nevertheless, recently, a tacit, unacknowledged halt in new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, and the beginning of proximity talks in the region between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, has enabled the administration to tone down its rhetoric on these contentious issues without giving up ground.

Another aspect of the administration’s charm offensive involves outreach to a wide variety of Jewish activists in all walks of life. Beyond leaders of the established Jewish organizations who got face time with senior officials and managed to land high-level administration speakers at their events, the White House reached out to rabbis in local communities and to foreign policy experts and Jewish lawmakers, especially those representing large Jewish populations that had been feeling the heat from their constituency.

A May 18 meeting that Obama held with Democratic and independent Jewish lawmakers was part of this effort. Organized by the White House, the meeting gave lawmakers an opportunity to air differences with the administration’s approach to Israel and, conversely, provided a chance for the administration to get the Jewish lawmakers rallying once again behind Obama and his Middle East policy.

Even New York Democrat Eliot Engel, a vocal critic of Obama on Israel, came out of the 90-minute meeting sounding like he was ready to withhold his fire for at least a bit. “Time will tell, but I think the administration realizes it went a little overboard,” Engel said in a May 24 interview.

The administration also brought 15 rabbis from local communities to the White House for two meetings in late April and mid-May with senior policymakers. Rabbi Jack Moline, who was asked to put together the group, chose a diverse list of local rabbis from across the country, giving representation to those concerned about Obama’s approach toward Israel. “I decided who will be on the list. The White House had nothing to do with it,” said Moline, a Conservative rabbi from Virginia who is close to Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff.

Participants characterized these meetings, with Ross and White House Middle East policy aides Dan Shapiro and Susan Sher, as open discussions in which the local religious leaders asked tough questions and got straight answers. “It was not about being invited to the White House and being massaged,” Moline said, “it was a real discussion about serious topics.”

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, from Florida’s Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue, said he was the most opposed to the administration among all rabbis attending. But even he said that the talk of defense cooperation between the United States and Israel struck a chord. “I found it reassuring,” he said. “This is the kind of information that doesn’t make major headlines in the media.”

Goldberg said he left the White House with a sense of appreciation for the administration, but also with a “cautious” feeling about the administration’s approach to Israel.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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