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Internal Memo Takes on Obama’s Approach to Middle East

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A confidential memo questioning Senator Barack Obama’s potential approach to Middle East policy was circulated earlier this month among staffers at a major American Jewish organization.

In one section, the memo said that Obama’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program “raises questions,” while another portion suggested that Obama expected more from Israel than the Palestinians in resolving the conflict between the two.

The memo, a copy of which was given to the Forward, was written by Debra Feuer, a counsel for the American Jewish Committee, and also contained a discussion of the Republican winner in the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee.

After receiving questions from the Forward about the memo, top officials at the American Jewish Committee sent a letter to the Obama campaign on Sunday stating that “no element” of the letter “should be considered a position of the American Jewish Committee” and expressing “regret” that it became public.

The memo comes to light less than three weeks before February 5, when the vast majority of the country’s Jewish Democrats will vote in primary elections, including ones in New York, New Jersey and California.

As that date approaches, Obama has found himself at the center of a public debate about his personal associations, background and commitment to Israel. Earlier this week, the Chicago lawmaker responded to revived concerns about links between Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his pastor in Chicago, even as a number of Jewish senators and major Jewish organizations — including the American Jewish Committee — publicly denounced an email campaign spreading false accusations that he is secretly a Muslim. The editorial page of the staunchly conservative New York Sun newspaper recently defended the senator’s commitment to Israel.

However, the memo circulated at the American Jewish Committee betrays a quiet unease about Obama’s potential Middle East strategy that still lingers in some pockets of the Jewish community.

Feuer, the AJCommittee’s counsel for special projects, includes a number of statements Obama has made in support of Israel and against a nuclear Iran, but she questions Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and emphasis on diplomatic engagement.

Obama “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 writes.

She added that Obama’s approach to the Palestinian government “contrasts with the three conditions that the international community has laid down for the resumption of aid,” including acting to stop terrorism and accepting the right of Israel to exist.

The memo also expresses concern about Obama’s potential approach to dealing with Iran, in the wake of a new National Intelligence Estimate, released in November 2007, which judged that the country had halted its alleged nuclear weapons program in 2003.

“The Senator’s interpretation of the NIE raises questions,” wrote Feuer, without elaborating further. She went on to list a half-dozen statements the Illinois lawmaker has made in support of renewed diplomacy with Iran, and note that “he also calls for negotiating with other rogue states, notably Syria.”

Under a section titled “Of Further Note,” Feuer takes note of Obama’s presence at a fundraiser headlined by the late Edward Said in 1998, and public suggestions by Ali Abunimah, a Chicago-based Palestinian activist, that Obama was more openly critical of the America’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before his first run for Senate.

The memo also includes several pages of statements by Huckabee on Middle East issues, but without editorial comment, except to note the Huckabee “inexplicably” said he had not seen the NIE when first asked about it by reporters on December 4. Under a section titled “Of Further Note” about Huckabee, Feuer states his campaign is “overtly Christian” and details a half-dozen comments and commercials referencing his faith.

In a statement issued in response to questions from the Forward, the AJCommittee said that the memo “was an internal document prepared by a staffer of AJC’s Washington office the day after the Iowa caucuses.”

“We regret the fact it has been circulated, as it was for AJC purposes only,” the statement said. “Its only intention, however expressed by the writer, was to try and help the agency better understand the winners’ positions on certain public policy issues concerning the agency.”

In the letter sent to the Obama campaign on Sunday, the president and executive director of the AJCommittee wrote that they “regret any inaccuracies that the memorandum, prepared from open sources on a tight deadline immediately after the caucuses – and never intended for publication – might have contained.”

“We would welcome further information from your campaign that would allow us to correct any errors you and your campaign might have discovered in this staff document,” the letter from Richard Sideman and David Harris said.

The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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