Obama seeks to mollify U.S. Jewish groups uneasy about Mideast turmoil
As Egypt’s government hurtled toward collapse, a senior White House official got on the phone with American Jewish leaders who were worried what it might mean for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
The official, Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council, promised them that the treaty, long seen as a cornerstone of the Jewish state’s security, would endure.
But when asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that may wind up with a share of power in Egypt, Shapiro was more noncommittal, according to participants in the call. He said the U.S. did not have a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and that, in the end, Egypt would pick its own leaders.
That troubled some of the Jewish leaders, and their reaction confronts the Obama administration with a new dilemma: In adapting to rapid developments in the Middle East, the president could alienate part of his domestic political base.
Jewish leaders largely praise President Obama’s management of the crisis that culminated in the demise of President Hosni Mubarak’s government in Cairo. But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, noted that “the big question is, can they [the Muslim Brotherhood] play a constructive role or not? There are those who would like to believe they can. To put it mildly, we remain to be convinced.”
Soon after Egypt’s protests began, the White House took pains to reassure Jewish leaders. The administration briefed them on events, pledged itself to Israel’s security and emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood would be a minor player in Egyptian politics.
Obama’s relationship with the U.S. Jewish community has far-reaching political ramifications. He won 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008, but some Jewish leaders are upset that he has yet to visit Israel. They also are unhappy with Obama’s efforts to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of Jewish settlement construction in disputed territory.
At the same time, however, the administration last month exercised its United Nations Security Council veto power to kill a resolution condemning the Israeli settlements as illegal.
With the 2012 presidential election campaign approaching, any new political tension would be worrisome to Democrats. Jews are 4% of the vote in Florida, a crucial swing state. And Republicans would love to peel off Jewish fundraisers who have been loyal to Obama.
“Jews and Jewish donors are watching with concern,” said Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser. “It’s with an eye toward how things develop. If over time things change and the administration isn’t doing everything that it can to prevent that [the Brotherhood rising to political power in Egypt], then it could turn into an issue.”
Shapiro, a former lobbyist and aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), is Obama’s main liaison to the Jewish community, briefing leaders about a dozen times since the president was sworn in.
“I’ve always told him, ‘Dan, President Obama is lucky to have you. You know how to make his case.’ I’ve even told him I’m saddened that he does such a good job promoting President Obama’s positions that I disagree with,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
The tempest over the Muslim Brotherhood began Jan. 31 — six days after the protests in Egypt erupted — when then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the U.S. supported a role for “nonsecular” groups in a revamped Egyptian government. That was taken as a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last month, Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told a congressional hearing that the Brotherhood was “largely secular” and “eschewed violence.” After an outcry over the assertion, Clapper backed away from his statement that the organization was irreligious.
Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has a history of violent confrontation, but it says it renounced violence decades ago.
Divided into conservative and moderate factions, the Brotherhood has been a banned opposition group in Egypt for years. With an estimated 600,000 members, it runs social and economic programs that fill gaps in the country’s public services. Running for elective office as independents, the Brotherhood won 20% of the seats in Egypt’s parliament in 2005. It failed to win any seats in November’s parliamentary election, a vote that was widely denounced as fraudulent.
Clapper, speaking at a separate Senate hearing, was asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood would honor the peace treaty with Israel. He testified that “they’re probably not in favor of the treaty.”
Egypt’s revolution is still in progress. And some in the Jewish community say it may be premature to worry about the Brotherhood’s role.
“There’s a lot of antipathy in Egypt toward Israel; we shouldn’t make any mistake about it,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group. “And it’s possible there will be people involved who are not friends of Israel.”
He continued: “But the revolution wasn’t about Israel. From everything we can tell, it wasn’t driven by the Muslim Brotherhood. It was driven by young people looking for a better future.”
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