For Barack Obama, a careful courting of Jewish vote
The Democratic presidential hopeful has recalibrated his words about Israel and the Middle East peace process.
Washington — For a candidate intent on courting the Jewish vote, some of the headlines for Sen. Barack Obama in recent weeks have been less than heartening.
"Obama comment draws fire from Jews," the Des Moines Register declared after the senator's unscripted remark at an Iowa campaign stop in March that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" from stalled peace efforts with the Israelis.
"Obama on the Mideast: Not quite comfortable," The Chicago Jewish Star said after his first major policy speech on the Middle East, to a pro-Israel group in his hometown.
And at last week's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, Senator Obama's omission of Israel in response to a question about America's top allies gave moderator Brian Williams an opening to revisit the Iowa flap in front of a television audience of more than 2 million.
Some analysts say the miscues add up to a faltering start for Obama with a group of politically active voters and donors who could play an important role in a tight Democratic primary, particularly in states with larger Jewish populations like New York, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, and California.
But Obama's advisers contend the sharp questions are a result of scrutiny any newcomer to the national stage would face on terrain as knotty as Middle East politics.
"I think it's coming significantly just out of the newness factor," says Dan Shapiro, an adviser to the Obama campaign. "We've known, and he's recognized since the beginning, that for someone who's only been in national office for two years lots of people are going to have lots of questions."
To answer those questions, Obama has delivered a series of speeches since March before Jewish audiences – two before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential pro-Israel lobby, and one, last week, before the National Jewish Democratic Council here.
Even in that short span, his remarks have undergone a subtle evolution.
In March, he spoke of relaxing restrictions on aid to the Palestinians and said "both the Israeli and Palestinian people have suffered from the failure to achieve" the "goal" of "two states living side by side in peace and security." While asserting that the United States should isolate Hamas and other Palestinian Islamic militants, he said that "Israel will also have some heavy stones to carry" in any peace process.
By last week, however, the references to Palestinian suffering and Israeli heavy-lifting were gone, replaced by a less nuanced pro-Israel stance nearly indistinguishable from that of his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"When I am president, the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel in search of this peace and in defense against those who seek its destruction," Obama told an audience at the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), where his staff also handed out a 29-page "American-Israeli Relationship Issue Packet."
Yet two days later, when asked at the debate at South Carolina State University to name America's three most important allies, Obama listed the European Union, NATO, and Japan.
"I didn't hear you mention Israel," Mr. Williams interjected, asking whether the senator still stood behind his statement that "no one is suffering more than the Palestinian people."
"What I said is, nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region," Obama replied. "Israel has been one of our most important allies around the world."
Senator Clinton learned the price of striking an off note on Middle East politics early in her first Senate campaign. In 1999, she kissed Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, moments after Mrs. Arafat accused Israel of gassing Palestinian women and children. Clinton later claimed Mrs. Arafat's remarks had been mistranslated and eventually denounced them, but the episode threatened to derail her campaign.
"It played very poorly," recalls Steve Rabinowitz, a press aide in the Clinton White House. "For the next six years, she really worked the community and now she reaches into every corner, from the most secular Upper East Side Jew to the most religiously observant, even Hasidic.
"If we're measuring [Obama] against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and even to some extent [Sens. Joseph] Biden and [Christopher] Dodd, he's got a lot of catching up to do," says Mr. Rabinowitz, who says he is unaffiliated with any candidate this campaign season.
One reason is simply that Senators Biden and Dodd, like Clinton and former Senator Edwards, have occupied the national stage longer than Obama has. "They have a tremendous head start because they're very well-known quantities in the community," says Rabinowitz.
Jews make up 2 or 3 percent of the US population, but they vote at disproportionately high rates and are major Democratic Party donors, according to analysts. In the New York primary, as much as 25 percent of the Democratic turnout could be Jewish, analysts say.
Jewish base of support in Chicago
Obama has lined up a number of prominent Jewish fundraisers, including Penny Pritzker, the Chicago billionaire and Hyatt hotel heiress, and Alan Solomont, a Boston business magnate. And he has deep ties in Chicago's Jewish community, Jewish leaders there say.
"There are a large number of people from the Jewish community who have been supportive of Barack for years and years, since he first ran for the state legislature," says Lynn Cutler, a former official in the Clinton White House who is a lead fundraiser for Mrs. Clinton in Chicago. "There is an enormous affection for him."
By one measure, Obama's efforts seem to be paying off. A March survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 2 percent of Obama's Democratic or Democratic-leaning supporters were Jewish, compared with 5 percent of Clinton's. When the survey was bolstered with new data from April, Obama had pulled even with Clinton, with Jews making up an equal share – 4 percent – of their bases of support.
Still, the Obama camp remains sensitive to its portrayal in Jewish websites and news organizations.
A few weeks ago, his campaign contacted at least one member of a panel that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had convened to rate the candidates' attitudes toward Israel, according to Shmuel Rosner, the newspaper's chief US correspondent.
The panel of Israeli academics and former diplomatic officials had consistently ranked Obama last or second-to-last in a field of hopefuls from both parties. Obama's Chicago speech to AIPAC in March resulted in only a minor boost, placing him ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska but well behind the top-rated names, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), and Clinton.
The low rating reflected unease about Obama's shorter track record in foreign affairs and his support from left-wing Democrats who may be less sympathetic to a hard-line defense of Israel, says Mr. Rosner. The Obama campaign had "wanted to make sure the panel had read the Chicago speech, and they also sent some other quotes," says Rosner, noting that other campaigns had also contacted the panel, which calls itself The Israel Factor.
For many American Jews, a candidate's record on traditionally liberal social and economic issues carries more weight than slight nuances in their positions on Israel, says Ira Forman, executive director of the nonprofit NJDC and coeditor of the book "Jews in American Politics."
Obama has played as much to those mainstays of Jewish-American politics as he has to the issue of Israel's security, using speeches before Jewish audiences to talk about the civil rights struggle, global warming, and the genocide in Darfur. His early opposition to the Iraq war has also reverberated with Jewish Americans, who, according to Gallup polls, are more likely to view the war as a mistake than are Americans of any other faith.
Robert Seidemann, a semiretired business owner who pressed Obama for reassurances on his Israel views at the NJDC speech last week, said afterward that he was still on the fence about the Illinois senator.
"As a Jew, it's a little easier to support a Hillary or an Edwards, because their record on Israel has been proven," he said in a phone interview from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It's more a lack of knowledge than it is a fear that his position is less than what I want it to be. We need to know more about him."
Lee Diamond, a social activist from Falls Church, Va., says he was sold on Obama from the moment he heard of the senator's early years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
"I believe in the social justice values of Judaism," Mr. Diamond says. "He appeals to that because his whole career has been about public service."