Just days before the Republican National Convention was to nominate Sen. John McCain for president, the campaign called upon former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to play hardball for the Jewish vote.
The unlikely target was Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew and former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is an unpaid adviser to the Obama campaign. And the move caused some to wonder whether the McCain campaign, already poised to win about a third of the Jewish vote, would launch a narrow, aggressive effort at capturing one segment of the Jewish community — pro-Israel activists — and not the average Jew on the street.
The questions were raised because of an Aug. 20 conference call Giuliani, a McCain surrogate, and McCain senior foreign policy adviser
Randy Scheunemann had with reporters about Kurtzer’s trip in July to Syria. While there he met privately with Syria’s foreign minister.
Giuliani said the meeting was “another indication of the inexperience that Sen. Obama has in conducting foreign policy. … Maybe this is a playing-out of his negotiating with dictators and people like that without preconditions.”
Giuliani added that Obama “thinks that as a candidate he can conduct foreign policy with his 300 or so advisers. Are they going to have meetings with foreign leaders who are antagonistic to the U.S.? These are things an experienced person in foreign policy would have thought through, and you wouldn’t find as many mistakes being made as is being made here.
“It illustrates one of the major reasons John McCain is doing so well,” Giuliani continued, “and the reason I believe it will win us the election. The American people want someone who is tried and tested in the field of foreign policy.”
Kurtzer told The Jewish Week that he was in Syria to attend a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association “to help promote the rule of law in a country where they need the rule of law.” He said that in a private meeting with Foreign Minister Walled Moallem, “I encouraged him to make peace with Israel.”
“How anyone could criticize this is just beyond me,” Kurtzer added. “My trip had nothing to do with the Obama campaign. It had nothing to do with private diplomacy. … This was a foolish act on the part of the McCain campaign. I just think it was a silly, shortsighted, not well thought out action on their part.”
A call to Giuliani’s New York office Tuesday was referred to the McCain campaign.
Gilbert Kahn, a political science professor at Kean University in Union, N.J., said the conference call was no mistake and that the McCain campaign is deliberately targeting pro-Israel Jewish activists.
“It is trying to rekindle doubts, especially among right-of-center Jewish voters and Orthodox Jewish voters,” about the Illinois senator’s commitment to Israel, he said.
“I think the McCain campaign perceives that it has a real opening to get a significant increase in the Jewish Republican vote,” Kahn added. “They view this as a tremendous opportunity, and as a result of which they are pulling out all the stops.”
A recent poll by J Street, the new pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, found that Arizona senator had the support of 32 percent of the Jews polled. Obama garnered 62 percent of the Jewish vote in the J Street poll.
Kahn said the McCain campaign believes it could increase that figure to 40 percent, the figure Ronald Reagan amassed in 1980.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, insisted that such Israeli leaders as Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzchak Rabin have criticized Kurtzer’s actions in the past.
“They have criticized him for blaming Israel for most of the problems … and for pressuring Israel endlessly to make concessions,” he said. “When someone with that reputation meets with Syrian officials, it is understandable that a strong concern is raised — that his conversations will not promote Israel’s point of view.
“Whether it is the ABA or Obama who sent him, the concern of many Israeli officials and the ZOA is that Kurtzer is sending a message that is not friendly to Israel. Kurtzer’s vision of peace continues to be one in which Israel makes major unilateral concessions not only on [the West Bank] but on Jerusalem.”
But a campaign that adopts a strategy of “appealing to extremists is a losing strategy electorally,” observed L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Me.
Maisel said the support Obama has received in the Jewish community “would lead one to believe that most Jewish leaders have no qualms with him regarding Israel. McCain’s tactic is to try to create as divide where none exists.”
What he is doing, Maisel observed, is taking the “hardest line on Israel. … It will backfire on him because part of his appeal is that he is not your typical candidate who does anything to get ahead. These kinds of tactics are very much out of the Karl Rove campaign tactics book.”
Although this strategy may have positive results initially, Maisel said the gains are only short term.
“Where did the straight-talk express go?” he asked.
Israel was also at the heart of the reaction by the Republican Jewish Coalition to Obama’s announcement of Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware to be his running mate.
“Biden has failed to recognize the serious threat that Iran poses to Israel and the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East,” it said. “In 1998, Sen. Biden was one of only four senators to vote against the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act, a bill that punished foreign companies or other entities that sent Iran sensitive missile technology or expertise. Biden was one of the few senators to oppose the bipartisan 2007 Kyl-Lieberman Amendment labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.”
And Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the one-time Democrat turned Independent who is backing McCain, cited those votes in pitches to voters. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee strongly backed the Iran measures opposed by Biden, but today it is remaining neutral in the presidential contest and citing Biden’s strong support for U.S.-Israel relations.
An Obama supporter, Alan Solomont of Boston, insisted that the Biden vote “will be an issue only to an extent that the Republicans try to misrepresent and distort the nature of that vote.”
Biden said at the time that he did not oppose labeling the Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist group but supported separate legislation with similar language.
But critics also cite a 1992 angry exchange between Biden and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a Senate hearing. When Biden raised his voice and threatened to cut off economic American aid to Israel, Begin reportedly shouted: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off aid to give up our principles.”
“Do you think that because the U.S. lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do?” he continued. “We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.”
Zalman Shoval, Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 1990-‘93, said that although Biden is “undoubtedly a friend of Israel, we did have from time to time disagreements on specific points where Sen. Biden did not agree with the policies of the Israeli government of the day.”
He said Israelis were also surprised Biden did not support the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment.
Richard Rosenbaum, a former chairman of the New York State Republican Party, said that although he believes Biden “on the whole helps” the Democratic ticket, “I don’t think it as big a help as some people think.”
In an interview before Michelle Obama’s address to the Democratic convention Monday, Rosenbaum said he had “a lot of problems getting past Michelle Obama. Jews in America have done extremely well, but I never heard a Jew in all the years of discrimination say I am finally proud to be an American. Her saying that tells me a lot about her and some of it rubs off on him.”
The Republican convention in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minn., which begins Monday, will have “a massive number of Jewish events both from the Republican Jewish Coalition and AIPAC,” said Rudy Boschwitz, a former Independent-Republican Minnesota senator.
Although not a delegate, Boschwitz, a longtime friend of McCain, said he planned to attend some convention-related events. He said he believes that McCain has a real chance of attracting Democratic votes.
“A rabbi was in my office this morning and he talked about his very large Minnesota congregation and the fact that he detected softness” in support for Obama, he said. “Obama had pretty gamy associations, I must say, that we as Jews shouldn’t be quiet about. Any number of his earlier associates were associated with various pro-Palestinian causes.”
Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and co-chair of Jewish outreach for the McCain campaign, said he too is hearing that there is “continued skepticism over Sen. Obama” and his “lack of a defined record in his support for Israel.” That is contrasted with confidence in McCain because of his long record of support for Israel.
“I have been traveling to contested states and have found that the turnout for McCain is better than it was for Bush four years ago,” he added.