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Obama Set For Big Jewish Push
Major Mideast policy speech could come at JCPA plenum; ex-Clinton official on board as Jewish adviser.
James D. Besser - Washington Correspondent
With millions of campaign dollars at stake as well as votes in a handful of key primary states, the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is poised to dramatically increase its Jewish outreach.
That includes the recruitment of top Jewish donors and advisers, and an expected major speech on Israel and the Middle East that a Democratic insider said "will set the baseline and establish Sen. Obama as a reliable, strong supporter of Israel."
The first-term senator formally announced his plans last weekend to seek the 2008 Democratic nomination.
This week Obama campaign officials were talking to leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), whose Washington plenum -- which begins Feb. 24 -- could provide a high-profile venue for the anticipated speech.
Jewish Democrats suggest the JCPA event -- with a broad spectrum of Jewish groups participating, but a generally liberal crowd -- could be an ideal venue for the official launch of the Obama Jewish outreach effort.
Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union and a former Harvard Law School classmate and pickup basketball partner of the Illinois senator, said he has been in touch with the campaign to discuss the pro-Israel themes he hopes the candidate will strike.
Diament said Obamaｦs appeal among those Jewish voters "who put Israel high on their list of political priorities" will depend on the senator's fleshing out his Middle East views.
The impending Obama Jewish push may take on greater significance if, as many state politicians prefer, New York moves up its presidential primary to next February. That change would increase the importance of the Jewish vote in both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.
The campaign has also signed on a leading Jewish Mideast expert, Dan Shapiro, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. Shapiro is leaving his position as a top aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) for a job with a Washington lobbying firm and a role doing Mideast policy and Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign.
At the same time, the freshman senator signaled over the weekend that he isn't going to follow the well-established path of repeating all the positions advocated by pro-Israel lobbyists.
On Sunday, speaking on the CBS program "60 Minutes," Obama was asked if he would "talk to Iran and Syria," nations on the Bush administration diplomatic blacklist.
Obama did not mince words.
"Yes," he said. "I think that the notion that this administration has -- that not talking to our enemies is effective punishment -- is wrong."
Like countless other candidates in both parties, he cited a former Republican president to prove his point, noting that Ronald Reagan met with Moscow during the Cold War. Obama did not reject the eventual use of military force to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions but said he thought "our first step should be a much more aggressive approach to diplomacy than we've displayed thus far."
The candidate's words won praise from at least one leading Jewish pro-peace process advocate.
"The possibility of Iran getting atomic weapons, or of a war to deter Iran from getting them, are the biggest threats to Israel right now," said M.J. Rosenberg, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). "To have a candidate who flat-out says we should talk to the Syrians and the Iranians to avert these contingencies is not only in the best interests of America, it's in the best interests of Israel."
But major pro-Israel lobby groups have generally supported President George W. Bush's attempts to isolate the regimes in Tehran and Damascus. And one Jewish activist sharply criticized his comments.
"You can't give any legitimacy to terrorist regimes; you just have to work to destroy them," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). "Barack Obama worries me more than any other candidate because he seems to be the one most likely to appease tyrants and dictators, and he would be the one most likely to pull our troops from Iraq, leaving a huge vacuum that will be filled by terrorists."
But Obama's comments about Syria and Iran could play well with voters -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- who are upset about administration actions in Iraq and fearful of a repetition in Iran.
Analysts say Obama is trying to walk a difficult line, sympathizing with the situation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank but also stressing Israel's security needs and criticizing Palestinian leaders.
In a Podcast during a trip to the region last summer, Obama said his visit to the West Bank offered a "sense of the differences between life for Palestinians and Israelis in this region. Palestinians have to suffer through the checkpoint system, the barriers, the fenced-in wall that exists just to get to their jobs, oftentimes to travel from north and south even within the West Bank. It's created enormous hardship for them -- there is high unemployment and the economy is not doing as well as it should."
At the same time, he said the Palestinians "suffered from leadership that seemed to be more interested in the rhetoric of Israel's destruction and less interested in actually constructively creating a peaceful solution to the problem and focusing on delivery of services to the Palestinian people."
Obama supported Israel's military actions against Hezbollah and Hamas last summer, saying, "I don't think there is any nation that would not have reacted the way Israel did after two soldiers had been snatched. I support Israel's response to take some action in protecting themselves."
He was also in the region in January 2006, when he met with Palestinian students and, according to a Chicago television station, said "the U.S. will never recognize winning Hamas candidates unless the group renounces its fundamental mission to eliminate Israel."
The Obama campaign has already attracted some high-octane Jewish supporters, including Alan Solomont, a top Democratic fundraiser. Solomont is a longtime supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Obama's most formidable opponent in the race for the nomination, and a major fundraiser in the unsuccessful 2004 John Kerry campaign.
Earlier, the Illinois senator won support from Robert Schrayer, a Chicago philanthropist and top local Jewish leader.
Obama will need that kind of backing. Every contender in the crowded Democratic field is already tapping Jewish financial heavy hitters for what is certain to be the most expensive primary fight in history. And like most of his Democratic opponents, Obama starts the race far behind Clinton in the money chase.
Many political experts say Obama is likely to play well with a Jewish electorate that remains heavily Democratic and liberal.
"There's no Democrat who has locked in the Jewish vote," said American University historian Allan Lichtman, who specializes in predicting presidential races. "It's wide open."
But Lichtman said that the qualities that have generated the Obama buzz in the general electorate are also affecting Jewish voters.
"He's well educated, he has sterling intellectual credentials and he seems to have struck the right note on a lot of issues," he said.
Obama's longstanding opposition to the Iraq war will play well with a Jewish majority that has shared that view since the 2003 run-up to the U.S.-led invasion, according to Lichtman.
But Obama starts the race with a big liability, he continued: inexperience
"The winner in this race is going to be the last person to make a mistake," he said. "First-time candidates are mistake-prone."
This week the Illinois lawmaker got a taste of that when he was forced to backtrack from his comment that the lives of 3,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq were "wasted."
In New Hampshire this week, he promised to apologize to the families of the dead soldiers.
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