Jewish Leaders Wary as White House Seeks Support for Syria Vote in Congress

The administration launched its outreach efforts amidst widespread Jewish concerns about taking sides or playing a prominent role in Syria debate: Rosh Hashanah is a good excuse to stall.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The U.S. administration has launched an outreach campaign to convince American Jewish leaders and their organizations to support President Obama’s efforts to win Congressional support for a military operation in Syria – but the leaders are wary of joining the fray.

Despite the Labor Day weekend, senior White House and administration officials have initiated phone calls with several Jewish figures to reiterate the messages issued by Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in recent days concerning the centrality of Israel to the administration’s concerns in Syria – and to ask for their public and political support.

Haaretz in depth coverage of the crisis in Syria: Israel and lobby likely to get embroiled in Congress debate on Syria (Chemi Shalev) || Shalev)Obama informed Netanyahu prior to speech of plans to delay Syria strike (Barak Ravid) || Obama, Syria and the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran || U.S. intervention in Syria - humanitarian action or a new imperialism (Aeyal Gross)

Obama and Kerry have emphasized that the proposed operation is crucial to prevent the danger of chemical weapons attacks on Israel and to deter Hezbollah and Iran. “I don't think they will want to vote, ultimately, to put Israel at risk,” Kerry has said of the American lawmakers.

Kerry has also played to Jewish sensitivities by repeatedly comparing the current situation in Syria to World War II Europe, President Bashar Assad to Adolf Hitler and government inaction towards atrocities then – and, implicitly, passivity of the Jewish community – to the opposition to an operation in Syria now.

Administration sources told The New York Times on Monday that “the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against Assad,” but sources in the Jewish community said they thought that was premature. The sources expressed concern Monday about the centrality of Israel and its interests being placed by the Administration in the emerging public and political debate. Israel and its supporters, one leader said, “are stuck between a rock and a hard place and mired in a lose-lose situation.”

“If Jewish organizations and the pro-Israel lobby campaign openly in favor of the administration,” he said, “they will upset Republican critics of Obama. If they stay out of it and Obama is defeated the administration will never forgive or forget.”

The campaign to win Jewish support is being waged in parallel with the efforts to convince senators and members of Congress to support the administration. While there are varying views about the balance of power, the administration has made no secret of its belief that the lobby could play a critical role. One administration official told the New York Times on Monday that the lobby is like the “800 lb. gorilla in the room” that could decide the campaign one way or another.

But some Jewish leaders are wary of publicly supporting the administration or of deploying the pro-Israel lobby in Congress on its behalf. Many are concerned about stepping into the crossfire of a political war between Democrats and Republicans, of portraying Israel as a reason for the U.S. to go or not to go to war or of lending credence to claims that Jews hold inordinate political sway.

The history of suspicion and bad blood between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters may also have some indirect influence on Jewish concerns. Some Jewish leaders will refuse to bolster Obama’s political stature and would like nothing better than to see him weakened, while others do not trust the president’s resolve and are worried that he will back down from an attack even if he receives Congressional authority, rendering Jewish groups with no tangible reward for having spent valuable political capital.

Some Jewish leaders are therefore grateful that the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday can serve as a valid excuse for stalling, though others believe that ultimately the Jewish community will have no choice but to offer support, even if tepid, for the administration’s efforts.

“There can be no doubt,” as one observer told me on Monday, “that if Congress casts a veto it will not only humiliate Obama but deal a significant blow to American standing in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular. I find it hard to believe that leaders who think of themselves as supporters of Israel will be able to stand aside and let such a catastrophe happen.”

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives with Vice President Joe Biden to make a statement about the crisis in Syria at the White House, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. Credit: AP

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