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Internal Memo Takes On Obama’s Mideast Approach

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

Obama’s approach to dealing with Iran “raises questions,” said the document, which circulated within the American Jewish Committee. It also suggested that Obama placed the burden of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict primarily on the Jewish state.

The memo, a copy of which was given to the Forward, was written by Debra Feuer, the AJCommittee’s counsel for special projects. It also contained information about the Republican winner in the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee.

After receiving questions from the Forward, top officials at the AJCommittee contacted Obama last Sunday. They sent a letter stating that “no element” of the memo “should be considered a position of the American Jewish Committee” and expressing “regret” that the document became public. Several days later, the AJCommittee disavowed the document in stronger terms, saying that it “contained inaccuracies” in a public statement.

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 held by New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts and Illinois.

As that date approaches, Obama has found himself at the center of several public exchanges concerning his personal associations, his background and his commitment to Israel. Earlier this month, the senator responded to revived concerns about links between Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the senator’s personal pastor, even as a number of Jewish senators and major Jewish organizations — including the AJCommittee — publicly denounced an e-mail smear campaign that falsely accused Obama of secretly being a Muslim. Meanwhile, as reports have surfaced in recent weeks that Republicans planned to question Obama’s commitment to Israel, the senator found several unlikely defenders, including the editorial page of the staunchly conservative New York Sun.

Advocates for the senator point out that over the years, he has courted and received strong backing from the Chicago Jewish community and has built a strong pro-Israel record. Last March, he gave the first foreign policy speech of his presidential campaign before a meeting of a pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

But even as officials at the AJCommittee have repudiated the leaked memo as rushed and inaccurate, it betrays a quiet unease about Obama’s potential Middle East strategy that still lingers in some pockets of the Jewish community.

Quoting Obama’s much buzzed-about statement early in the campaign that “no one has suffered more than the Palestinians,” Feuer questioned the lawmaker’s potential as a peace broker.

“He 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 wrote.

She also expressed concern about Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy, particularly in dealing with Iran and other “rogue states.”

“The Senator’s interpretation of the NIE raises questions,” Feuer wrote, referring to the new National Intelligence Estimate, released in November 2007, which determined that Iran had halted its alleged nuclear weapons program in 2003. While Feuer did not explicitly elaborate further, she included a number of statements Obama has made that encourage diplomatic engagement with Tehran and are critical of the Bush administration.

Feuer also noted Obama’s presence at a fundraiser headlined in 1998 by the now late Edward Said, and of public suggestions by Ali Abunimah, a Chicago-based Palestinian activist, that the senator was more openly critical of 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, without editorial comment. In a separate section, Feuer expressed concern about the “overtly Christian” nature of Huckabee’s campaign.

Officials at the AJCommittee have rushed to repair the fallout from the leaked memo, which cast the nonpartisan group in an uncomfortable role as campaign critic. Earlier this month, the AJCommittee took the lead in speaking out against the rumors targeting Obama.

“We 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,” wrote Richard Sideman and David Harris, respectively AJCommittee’s president and executive director, in a letter sent to Obama on January 20.

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

In an interview with the Forward, one of the senator’s chief backers, Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, argued that the memo reflected “political bias on the part of the drafter of the memo, rather than the facts.”

Wexler, who chairs Obama’s campaign in Florida, said he took particular issue with the idea that Obama’s calls for diplomacy should cause alarm within Jewish circles, given that a number of Jewish lawmakers have advocated the same position.

“The whole notion that if a lawmaker supports renewed diplomacy with Iran, that that somehow suggests a position that the American Jewish community should be concerned about — well, put me on the top of that list,” Wexler said. “Put Tom Lantos on the top of that list, put Howard Berman and Gary Ackerman on the top of that list.”

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