Obama Working to Ensure Jewish Vote

Meticulous Planning For Visit to Israel Indicates Importance

Barack Obama tours the Israeli town of Sderot, on the edge of the Gaza Strip, with Mayor Eli Moyal, left, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Barack Obama tours the Israeli town of Sderot, on the edge of the Gaza Strip, with Mayor Eli Moyal, left, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. (Israeli Defense Ministry Via Associated Press)
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.

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