By Jonathan Weisman and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Before embarking on a sprawling international trip that would take him to seven countries, two continents and two war zones, Sen. Barack Obama and his campaign staff fixated on a speck on the globe that is slightly smaller than New Jersey: Israel.
For all the hype about his trip to Iraq and his speech in Berlin, it was the Israel leg that was the most sensitive and the most meticulously planned, according to sources involved with the arrangements. That fact alone is a testament to the presidential candidate's ongoing concerns about the Jewish vote this November, and the extraordinary lengths to which the senator from Illinois is going to ensure support from that traditional Democratic constituency.
Obama's position on Israel has been fairly mainstream. He has declared himself an undying ally of the Jewish state and has indicated that he would like the United States to return to a position of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But his connection to his former pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose anti-Israel sermons were widely reported this past spring, caused concern among some Jewish groups.
"I think he does still have issues with the Jewish community," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a prominent Jewish member of Congress. "In the end, I think he's going to do as well as any Democratic nominee with the Jewish community, but people still have to feel more comfortable with him."
Plans for yesterday's swing through Israel and the West Bank were hashed and rehashed, down to who would accompany the candidate, what venues he would appear at, whom he would meet, and even the order of those meetings.
"There was some very serious thought that went into this," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign who consulted with the campaign about the trip.
Obama aides considered taking some Jewish lawmakers on the visit, but then thought the idea was potentially demeaning. Instead, Obama's travel mates included Dennis Ross, a prominent former Middle East peace envoy, and Eric Lynn, a former House aide, Chicago community activist and Obama's liaison to the Jewish community. There was some talk of scuttling a planned news conference, for fear that any slip would be magnified by the attention the Jewish community is paying to the visit. Obama, in the end, did talk to the media.
"There is an extraordinary amount of attention, and it's for good reason," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who has served as an Obama liaison to Jewish voters in and beyond Florida. "People believe Senator Obama is going to win the election and become the next president of the United States."
Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), another national campaign co-chairman, described meeting with a group of New England Jewish leaders in Boston on July 11 to sound out lingering concerns with Obama. He then relayed those issues to the candidate before his trip.
"As impressive and phenomenal as the senator's campaign has been, he just hasn't been on the scene as long as others have been," Hodes said. "And the Jewish community is one that has a special feeling when it comes to roots."
Obama's statements and appearances yesterday were carefully choreographed to assuage such feelings. He met with an array of the Israeli political establishment -- left, right and center -- before venturing to the West Bank to sit down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The focal point of his day was a visit to Sderot, an Israeli town on the edge of the Gaza Strip where Hamas-fired rockets have rained down for months.
Considering Obama's poll numbers, all this attention may seem like overkill. New Gallup poll data indicate that he leads Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, by 60 percent to 33 percent among Jewish voters, close to the average split of 65 to 32 percent in favor of Democrats among Jewish voters in exit polls since 1972. But that average was lowered by the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter received just 45 percent of the Jewish vote.
In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry won 74 percent. In 2000, Al Gore won 79 percent, about what Bill Clinton took in 1996 and 1992. If McCain wins a third of Jewish voters, that would be better than any other GOP candidate has done among the group since 1988.
Jews made up 3 percent of the electorate in 2004, but Obama aides think their vote may be key in a few swing states where the margin in November could be razor thin: Florida, where Jews make up 4 percent of the population; Nevada, where they make up 3 percent; and Ohio, where they are strong in the Cleveland suburbs. If McCain is able to put New Jersey and Pennsylvania into play, the Jewish vote could loom large there, as well.
Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Jewry, said that Carter was the only Democrat in many decades who won the presidency -- in 1976 -- with less than 70 percent of U.S. Jews supporting him.
"It's like the canary in the mine. It's not because Jews are so important, but it's symbolic," he said.
Suzanne Kurtz, a spokeswoman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Obama is still having problems because some high-profile surrogates and supporters have questioned Israel's central position in U.S.-Middle Eastern policy. Robert Malley, who was a State Department official in the Clinton administration, resigned from his role as an informal Obama policy adviser after it emerged that he had met regularly with members of the militant group Hamas. Obama campaign officials have worked assiduously to distance themselves from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter's national security adviser and who is considered anti-Israel by many Jews.
"This is a very important clue to the source of skepticism and doubt," Kurtz said.
With such sensitivities in mind, Obama hewed closely to the advice Wexler and others gave him before his departure. He met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as opposition leader and conservative hawk Binyamin Netanyahu. He won Netanyahu's blessing as being sufficiently vigilant in the struggle to keep a nuclear weapon out of Iran's hands, Wexler said, and he made condemnation of Palestinian terrorism the central message of the day.
"We are still making our arguments," he cautioned, but after all the preparation, Jewish Obama supporters yesterday appeared satisfied that the day had gone fairly smoothly.
"I think it's an extraordinary home run," Hodes said.