Ira Forman.
Ira Forman Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Washington, D.C., September 4, 2011. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya

There are still 14 long months before the U.S. presidential election, but last week's confrontation between the White House and the speaker of the House of Representatives over the schedule of President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress that was eventually moved to Thursday, so as not to coincide with the Republican candidates television debate, was just a harbinger of the season where just about everything the president says, does - or does not say or do - might be used against him.

Last week, Ira Forman, former CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, assumed his new position in Obama's election campaign as its director of Jewish outreach. In 2008, this was the role of Dan Shapiro, who was sent to Tel Aviv this summer as the new U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

An Obama campaign activist thinks that the campaign must publicize Obama's record on Israel in order to make the Jewish community - where Obama's approval rating is still around 60% - less uncomfortable about his candidacy, after the Washington-Jerusalem rifts over the past two years.

"I have found time and again when people come to me and ask - and I explain [Obama's] record of support with regard to Israel, his record of military cooperation and assistance - and doing everything possible to prevent a nuclear Iran, people say: 'Gee, I didn't know that'," said a "Haaretz" source involved in the campaign who also worked closely on Obama's 2008 campaign. "I believe that the most important thing the campaign needs to do - especially in the Jewish community - is to get the record out, and the record is a superb one."

"One expert on the Middle East said to me about a month ago that this a president who's done more than the other presidents for Israel and got the least credit for it. I think that's true, and the Jewish community doesn't understand to which extent this president is a friend of Israel. Those of us who are engaged in the campaign feel that the most important thing we can be doing now is basically getting his record out, whether it's with regard to the Middle East or with regard to any of the other accomplishments that he's achieved."

"And despite the mischaracterizations of his record and the fact that there are those in Congress who are prepared to do whatever they can to oppose anything he supports, he's been a very effective and successful leader. He's been a terrific friend of Israel. He's presided over policies that have led to unprecedented levels of military assistance and security cooperation. He restored America's ability to work with the international community to obtain the type of cooperation that is crucial to the success of the U.S. policies, including those that are very important to Israel."

The activist is quite sure this time the public will see some more of the attacks from the far right, not only against Obama's policies, but also alleging that he is a covert Muslim ("People were saying he was a Muslim and at the same time criticizing the church he was a member of"), and other "equally irresponsible stuff". But, he said, despite these attacks, Obama still got 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008.

The fierce battle in the Republican camp, and especially the recent advance of the Texas Governor Rick Perry to become a front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, will make Ira Forman's job slightly easier - the more conservative the candidate, the less the chance the Jewish voters will abandon the Democrats. Not that their vote, despite the disproportional attention it usually gets, will be the decisive one in the elections - especially when some polls show the possibility of Perry beating Obama.

But going back to the Jewish vote - there are some bumps to be expected, such as the UN vote over the Palestinian state.

"He (President Obama) is doing what he possibly can - I don't know what more he could do," said the same source. "He made clear that if the Palestinians go to the Security Council the U.S. will veto the resolution. I think that his actions in the context of what does or doesn't happen in September have been as supportive of Israel as they possibly could be, and I think he'll get credit for that. I don't want to get into hypotheticals - I can only say that the actions he is taking are completely consistent with what friends of Israel would like him to do, he is doing everything he can to be helpful."

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Starting on September 8, a series of demonstrations marches and prayers are planned to take place in Palestinian territories - in front of the United Nations headquarters in Ramallah, near the West Bank security fence - and even in Tel Aviv, on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly .

Some Israel supporters in the U.S. might be harrumphing, convinced that the Obama administration is not doing enough to prevent the vote on the Palestinian statehood, but participants at demonstrations held last Sunday in Washington, New York, Albany, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Sacramento and other cities thought the U.S. is doing too much to prevent it.

While his fellow students waved Palestinian and U.S. flags in front of the White House, shouting: "We are ready, we will wait - Palestine will be a state!", Wyndham Ferris, a tall, red-haired individual wearing a shirt with the U.S. flag and a "Made in China" inscription, explained:

"What I am trying to do here as an American citizen is to tell him (Obama) that it's a bad idea on the world stage diplomatically and international relations-wise to block [recognition of a Palestinian state] at the UN."

"It's often said that the new Zionist capital of the world is the American right. I do not wish any ill will to the Israeli people. I have Jewish friend who went to visit there on Birthright and friends who went to teach in Palestine. I think that neither people has to suffer like this, because it's bad for both states if there is such stalemate and occupation. Israel's stability is very much undermined by keeping the occupation. It has to deal with constant uprisings and anger."

"If this claim that the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN will create backlash for the peace process came from the Israeli government in the 1970s or 80s, I'd probably have more patience for this. However, at this point - Netanyahu obviously doesn't care, he doesn't want to change that. This [Obama] administration and the Congress approve four billion dollars for this man - and he spits on us. I think it's quite reasonable for the Palestinians to seek the statehood via the UN. If you want a peaceful resolution, it should be the UN."

Kira Stoyko, another American student, says some of the Muslim students are afraid to take part in the Students for Palestine Chapter at the University of Maryland. "They are afraid of being put under surveillance or something, being singled out. At the very first day we were holding event, and one person pushed me, saying: "Where exactly is Palestine?" That's why at the beginning of this new semester we are going to have demonstration in the public area, pass pamphlets explaining why the Palestinians are trying to get a state and what this is all about".

Last summer, Kira was working at the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon and was impressed, she said, by the camp's dwellers "commitment to return to their homes and their families' return". Asked what she thinks about the Israeli assumption that the right of return will mean destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, she finally answers: "I have nothing against the Israelis, but the Israelis today are not kicked out of their houses, the Palestinians are, and that's not fair. Our connections to Israel have always been so strong that it's one-sided deal. The U.S. should be taken out of the equation because it's one-sided and the Palestinians are going to get nothing".

Yazan Mustafa, studying international affairs at George Washington University and one of the protest organizers, was born in Kuwait to two Palestinian refugees from Tulkarm and Silwan. He says he visits the Palestinian territories every time he can.

Is it a place he really wants to live in?

"It's not a place I want to live in but I want it to become a place I want to live in. It comes with sovereignty and self-governance and the end of the occupation. Our goal is simple, it's the same that the Americans want - we want democracy and we want to vote for representatives, and we want a passport, even if we live somewhere else - we want people to be able to say: 'This is my country' - to address ourselves as Palestinian citizens".

"I hope", he added, "that President Obama will change his mind and take back his position on vetoing the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN Security Council. We are hoping he'll change his mind. We want the international community, not the U.S., to be a referee. And we have 75% of the world population supporting the Palestinian statehood. It's not about delegitimizing Israel."