Top Democrats poised to face-off for White House

From Suha embrace to Iran hawk, Clinton now most favored by Jews
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) – “People here are going to be happy to hear that,” the campaign worker said, learning that U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had top approval ratings in the field of presidential candidates among Jewish Americans.
The news, delivered by a reporter last month, was especially welcome in the Clinton camp because her lead in nomination polls – nationally and in early state polls – was slipping.
Seven years of hard work cultivating the Jewish leadership in New York and nationally had paid off for Clinton. Her approval rating among Jewish Democrats, according to the American Jewish Committee poll, was 70 percent. Among all Jews it was 53 percent.
As first lady, Clinton’s pro-Israel record at times seemed one note, even superficial, against the breadth and depth her husband brought to the issue.
Whereas Bill Clinton could name the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, opine on Zionist history and deliver a persuasive “Shalom chaver” at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, Hillary Clinton’s repertoire was limited to introducing an Israeli early childhood education program to Arkansas.
As late as December 1998, during the couple’s visit to Israel, the first lady’s affiliation with the Hebrew University’s Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, known as HIPPY, was the centerpiece of her leg of the visit.
It didn’t help her profile among Jews that the Clinton administration used her as a stalking horse to advocate for a Palestinian state. Then in 1999, on the eve of her first bid for the U.S. Senate, she embraced Suha Arafat after the Palestinian leader’s wife accused Israel of deliberately poisoning Palestinian children. Clinton said later she hadn’t been paying close attention to the simultaneous translation.
It soon became clear, however, that she was willing to listen. Some of the signals were politics-as-usual horse-trading. President Clinton’s final pardons included four residents of the Chassidic enclave in New Square, N.Y., who had been convicted of defrauding the government. She received overwhelming support from the town during the election.
Once elected to the Senate, Clinton reached out to Jewish organizational leaders and soon became a staple of the Jewish circuit. Hardly a Washington event run by a national Jewish group does not include an address by Clinton – often on Tuesday morning, just before delegates go to the Capitol to lobby.
On many issues, particularly in the domestic arena, little gap existed between Clinton and the predominantly liberal Jewish organizational community. As first lady, Clinton had an established record promoting universal health care, and as senator she worked hard to stop Bush administration rollbacks on the Medicare program, which is almost universally favored by a Jewish population aging more rapidly than other Americans.
In other areas Clinton exhibited a subtle grasp of issues that concern the community, strongly backing discretionary Homeland Security funds to help protect nonprofits from terrorist attack. The bulk of those funds have gone to Jewish institutions.
She also has adopted as her own a campaign to press Arab governments to remove incitement against Jews and Israel from their textbooks.
Clinton took a hit this fall from her party’s base when she voted in favor of a nonbinding amendment that recommended sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Bush eventually ordered the sanctions, favored by the pro-Israel lobby as a means of pressing Iran to give up its suspected nuclear weapons program.
That drew sharp criticism from her competitors, who said the vote would embolden the Bush administration into waging war against Iran. She stood her ground.
“Iran is seeking nuclear weapons,” she said in an Oct. 30 MSNBC-sponsored debate. “And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism.”
She added: “I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy.”
It was straight from the pro-Israel playbook, and it illustrates what has attracted not only Jewish voter support but, perhaps even more substantively, Jewish fundraiser support.
Two of her major backers in this campaign supported polar opposites among the Democrats in 2004: Lonnie Kaplan of New Jersey went for Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and his tough foreign policy, and Steve Grossman opted for ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was fiercely anti-war.
At a National Jewish Democratic Council candidates’ forum last spring, Grossman and Kaplan, both former presidents of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sat next to each other and conferred occasionally on their favored candidate: Hillary Clinton.
Throughout his career, Obama has reached for
Jewish support
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Ask about Barack Obama’s natural constituencies and you might hear that he’s the first black with a viable shot at the White House, or about his Kenyan father and his childhood in Indonesia, or the youthfulness of his followers, or the millions of Oprah junkies swooning over his candidacy.
What you might not hear is that the Illinois senator, who made history last Thursday by winning the Democratic caucus in Iowa, has made Jewish leaders an early stop at every stage in his political career.
In his first run for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he sought the backing of Alan Solow, a top Chicago lawyer. Eight years later, running for the U.S. Senate – long before he became the shoo-in, when he was running in a Democratic field packed with a dozen candidates, including some Jews – one of his first meetings was with Robert Schrayer, a top Jewish philanthropist in Chicago.
When he launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in late 2006, he named as his fundraising chief Alan Solomont, the Boston Jewish philanthropist who helped shepherd Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to the Democratic candidacy in 2004.
And he chose a March gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to deliver his presidential candidacy’s first foreign policy speech.
“Some of my earliest and most ardent supporters came from the Jewish community in Chicago,” Obama told JTA in 2004, after his keynote speech galvanized the Democratic convention in Boston.
Three years later, addressing the National Jewish Democratic Council’s candidates’ forum, he made the same point when he was asked about his ties with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in Chicago.
“My support within in the Jewish community has been much more significant than my support within the Muslim community,” Obama said at the April forum, adding that “I welcome and seek the support of the Muslim and Arab communities.”
His Jewish followers are fervent, distributing “Obama ‘08” yarmulkes early in his campaign.
His rock-star status and the relationships Obama has built in the community have helped avoid murmurings about his otherwise notable divergences from pro-Israel orthodoxies.
In his AIPAC speech, for example, Obama favored diplomacy as a means of confronting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
“While we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons,” he said.
AIPAC does not oppose diplomacy in engaging Iran, but dislikes it as an emphasis, believing that talks could buy the Iranian regime bomb-making time. But his words did not stop the Chicago hotel ballroom packed with 800 AIPAC members from cheering on Obama.
A few weeks later, Obama drew more rubberneckers than any other candidate attending AIPAC’s policy forum in Washington, drawing away onlookers from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), although she outpolls Obama among Jewish voters.
No one winced when he said that Palestinian needs must be considered in working out a peace deal – hardly standard AIPAC pep talk.
He made the same point at the NJDC event.
“It is in the interests of Israel to establish peace in the Middle East,” he said. “It cannot be done at the price of compromising Israel’s security, and the United States government and an Obama presidency cannot ask Israel to take risks with respect to its security. But it can ask Israel to say that it is still possible for us to allow more than just this status quo of fear, terror, division. That can’t be our long-term aspiration.”
Early in his campaign, Obama handily killed an Israel-related controversy in its early stages. At a chat he had said that “no one has suffered more than the Palestinians.”
Blame the leadership was what he meant, explaining later during an MSNBC debate, “What I said was, 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 tempers his deviations from pro-Israel orthodoxy by going the extra mile in areas where he agrees with groups such as AIPAC.
He has led the effort in the Senate to pass legislation that would assist U.S. states that choose to divest from Iran. His top Middle East adviser is Dennis Ross, who had the job during the Clinton administration and who since has principally blamed the Palestinian leadership for the failure of the Oslo peace process.
And in recent speeches, Obama tweaked his pro-Israel rhetoric to echo the recent drive by the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups to insist on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
“I think everyone knows what the basic outlines of an agreement would look like,” he said in a speech redistributed by his campaign. “It would mean that the Palestinians would have to reinterpret the notion of right of return in a way that would preserve Israel as a Jewish state. It might involve compensation and other concessions from the Israelis, but ultimately Israel is not going to give up its state.”
On domestic issues, Obama is savvy about Jewish social justice commitments and is on a first-name basis with two of the top Jewish religious lobbyists in Washington – Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement and Nathan Diament, who represents the Orthodox Union.
That connection, however, is not enough to supplant Clinton among Jewish voters. In a recent American Jewish Committee poll, Obama’s favorable rating was 38 percent, while Clinton’s was 53 percent.
Clinton also is being backed by most of the Jewish congressional delegation. Her years as first lady and senator have made her a more familiar presence among Jews. Public policy groups are likelier to favor her uncompromising approach to pushing universal health care, as opposed to Obama’s appeal to build consensus on the issue.
Obama’s appeal is in his broader vision, according to Solomont.
“This election will be about change: a change in government and the way politics is conducted,” he told JTA in May. “There is a connection between gridlock and the smallness of our politics.”
Edwards’ openness to Iran worries some pro-Israel Jews
By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) – In 2004, John Edwards lost the Democratic presidential nomination because he was considered a foreign policy lightweight. He won the vice presidential slot because his social policies had depth.
Four years later, Edwards’ social and domestic positions remain pretty much the same – positions that are favored by the vast majority of American Jewish voters.
His foreign policies now have substance, too. That’s what worries some Jewish voters.
Off the record, Jewish organizational leaders say they are alarmed by Edwards’ about-face on Iran.
In January 2007, the former North Carolina senator spoke via videocast to the Herzliya Conference, the annual gathering of top Israeli and U.S. foreign policy specialists.
“For years, the U.S. hasn’t done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran,” Edwards told the conference, known to be top heavy with neoconservatives. “To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options on the table. Let me reiterate – ALL options must remain on the table.”
Such views were not inconsistent with mainstream candidates in both parties. No serious candidate favors attacking Iran in the near future. Rudy Giulani, the former New York mayor, has even distanced himself from advisers who favor a short-term attack.
However, neither did any major candidate at the time want to remove the military option from the menu.
Still, Edwards’ remarks set off a firestorm on the Democratic Party’s left, particularly among bloggers. This was just the element of the party base Edwards was cultivating with his “two Americas” domestic policy rhetoric on poverty; he could not afford to lose them on foreign policy.
Two weeks later Edwards told the American Prospect, a liberal monthly, that attacking Iran “would have very bad consequences.” He went on to elaborate: “It would be foolish for any American president to ever take any option off the table.” But above all, he favored direct negotiations with Iran.
“I think that we have lots of opportunities,” he said. “We’re not negotiating with them directly.”
Edwards’ stance is anathema to much of the pro-Israel establishment, which views direct negotiations as a means for Iran to buy time and develop a nuclear weapons program.
He has not retreated from that stance, taking hard shots at U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in recent months for joining a nonbinding resolution calling for terrorist group sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
President Bush ultimately imposed the sanctions by executive order. Clinton and others noted the alleged involvement of the group in training insurgents in Iraq and terrorists in Lebanon.
Critics said it marked the first time a statutory military corps had been declared “terrorist” and saw it as a way for the Bush administration to create an excuse to attack Iran.
In an American Jewish Committee poll taken in November, Edwards scored 38 percent in approval ratings, in a dead heat for third with Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Clinton led with 53 percent, followed by Giuliani at 41 percent.
It probably didn’t help that Edwards’ campaign chairman is David Bonior, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan who at times was a tough critic of Israel’s settlement policies. Shortly after announcing the choice in late 2006, Bonior sent out feelers to top pro-Israel donors assuring them that his focus was not foreign policy.
In March 2006, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, the candidate had cultivated just that establishment.
“For years I have argued that the United States has not been doing enough to deal with the growing threat in Iran,” Edwards said at that AIPAC parley. “While we’ve talked about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, we’ve largely stood on the sidelines as the problems got worse.”
Significantly, he included his “two Americas” pitch on poverty in the same speech – a curious pitch to a crowd that is all foreign policy all the time.
Or maybe not so curious: No American sub-electorate, save perhaps for blacks, is as attuned to Edwards on domestic policy as is the Jewish community. The tough talk on Iran and on poverty drew applause at the AIPAC confab.
Edwards strongly favors universal, mandatory health care and expanding tax credits for child care and higher education – issues that resonate with domestic Jewish lobbyists in Washington.
He has drawn strong Jewish support; his top fund-raiser is Fred Baron of Texas, like Edwards, a prominent trial lawyer.
No one talks the talk like Edwards, said Marc Stanley, a prominent Edwards backer and the vice chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
“It’s disgusting that we live in a prosperous and healthy country and we have more than 40 million people without health care and 37 million in poverty,” Stanley told JTA at the NJDC candidates’ forum in April. “For me, John Edwards brings clarity on those issues.

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