WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team in its first official encounter with the Jewish community suggested a substantial change in how his administration will deal with Jewish groups:
News AnalysisJoining the stalwart centrist organizations were an array of dovish pro-Israel groups that included the Israel Policy Forum, J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.
Of those groups, only the Israel Policy Forum made the occasional appearance at meetings with Bush administration officials. That was because the group was careful to cast a nonpartisan tint to its pro-negotiations posture, effusively praising the White House’s peace-brokering efforts, however infrequent they were until a year or so ago.
Other more liberal groups at the table, including the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, also were invited occasionally — with the emphasis on “occasionally.”
What was remarkable about the Dec. 18 meeting was that the Obama team also reached out to the opposite side of the political spectrum, including the Zionist Organization of America. Dan Shapiro, the transition official who handled foreign policy at the meeting, made it clear he wanted to hear all voices.
The Bush administration’s infamous tetchiness at criticism seemed to be a thing of the past. ZOA has slammed Obama’s transition team for including strident Israel critic Samantha Power in a post that barely registers above chief cook and bottle washer, but has failed to praise it for installing true-blue pro-Israel types such as Jim Steinberg in more senior posts.
That was fine with the dovish types — or at least with Diane Balser, who directs Brit Tzedek, which in recent years has lobbied for increased aid to the Palestinians even as ZOA has lobbied against it.
“The Obama team said they were open and understood everyone had a seat,” Balser told JTA. “To acknowledge there is more than one view on Israel, that we’re not monolithic — I consider that a step forward for us.”
Balser was so enchanted by the new order that she sought out the ZOA’s Mort Klein afterward, and they had a civil, even pleasant conversation, she said, and discovered something in common (aside, of course, from a love for Israel, however differently slanted): Each, it turns out, has a sibling who thinks their politics are, well, nuts.
Klein confirmed the conversation.
“I tell my brother he’s adopted, and he reminds me we look alike,” he said.
Klein said he thought Balser “was delightful and pleasant, although her group’s views are not delightful and pleasant.”
Klein wasn’t so sure about the breadth of the transition team’s outreach, noting that Americans for a Safe Israel, which is similarly hard line, was not present — although he was not sure they were not invited.
Klein said he took the opportunity during the meeting with the Obama team to contradict some of the dovish groups’ positions, pointing out shortcomings in the Arab League’s peace plan (it is unclear, for instance, on the status of Palestinian refugees and leaves open the possibility of a mass return.)
He also said he corrected misimpressions of support for a two-state solution, noting that at least two parties in the Israeli Knesset are opposed and that support among American Jews has dropped in recent years to below 50 percent.
Among the domestic and international issues discussed were economic recovery legislation, church-state matters, judicial appointments, energy independence, Iran, the Midlde East peace process and U.S. participation in the Durban II conference.
Obama transition team representatives at the meeting included Shapiro; Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison Valerie Jarrett; Tom Perez, co-chair of the transition teams on health care and justice; Tonya Robinson of the justice and civil rights transition team; and Eric Lynn, a senior adviser to the inaugural committee who worked on Jewish outreach during the campaign.