Robert Wexler walks into the Center for Middle East Peace, carrying his own bag, wearing no jacket. He gives a brief tour of his office, which overlooks one of the nicer blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue, and which, on a good day, is flooded with sunlight. On the walls, there are news clips about Wexler’s election wins, and pictures of the former seven-term congressman with leaders in the region he wants to fix. Here’s one with a grimacing Bibi Netanyahu. “We’d just been told that Arafat had died,” explains Wexler. Here’s a bigger, glossier photo: Wexler on the campaign trail with Barack Obama.
“That was in Tampa,” he says, pointing at a picture of a candidate and a crowd in a state of pure bliss. It wasn’t in his old southeast Florida district, but “they sent me everywhere.” In 2007 and 2008, Wexler’s barnstorming helped Obama among Jewish voters. The Democratic nominee with the middle name “Hussein” and a pew in Jeremiah Wright’s church won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, 4 points better than John Kerry’s share in 2004. In 2009, Wexler retired abruptly to run the center, founded 20 years earlier by the tycoon behind Slim-Fast. Israel policy-watchers spied a strategic move: One of the president’s most adroit Jewish allies was now a third-party broker. As he traveled the Middle East to talk up peace, surely, he was going to keep talking up Obama.
That was two years ago. Since then, the people who never trusted Obama on Israel have won argument after argument. The policy hasn’t changed. In 2008, Obama backed a two-state solution, with the 1967 borders as the basis, and land swaps shifting the territories to ones that Israel and a theoretical Palestine could defend, and he wanted Israel to stop building settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. In 2011, Republicans ran against this—and on the idea that Obama was “disrespecting” Israel—to win the 9th congressional district seat in New York City. Last month, a Gallup Poll clocked Jewish support for Obama falling 30 points, to 53 percent.
Wexler doesn’t dispute that there was a problem. He dings the media for exaggerating it, hyping the critiques of people like Ed Koch, who endorsed the Republican in New York’s 9th. “His reputation in Florida with former New Yorkers is strong,” Wexler shrugs. “In New York, he’s maybe less persuasive. That’s just what I hear.
Besides, says Wexler: “The universe has changed dramatically since that election in New York. The past month, we have witnessed what may be a series of the most high-profile, staunchly pro-Israel actions by a president in years.” He rattles them off, drumming his fingers on the table to make his points: Defending the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, revealing a sale of bunker-busting missiles to the Jewish state. “You had the secretary of state, [U.N.] Ambassador [Susan] Rice, and others, aligned with Israel consistently, and at times seemingly against the world—certainly against a consensus of world opinion—in terms of thwarting the unilateral Palestinian effort for statehood at the United Nations.”
And then there was the killing of Yemeni cleric and al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki. It was good for America, he says, and helpful for his quest of brokering Middle East peace to help out Israel. “It shows a strong, bold, resolute president in defense of American interests,” he says. “As a result, America, as well as President Obama, gets more respect.” It helps America if an American citizen is killed by drones? “I think it’s totally within the bounds of the law. The more interesting legal questions will be: What about collateral damage? What about the unintended effects of some of these actions? Again, I think totally within the bounds of the law, but those may have factors that the law may not have anticipated.”
So: Why is there still a perception problem for Obama on Israel? When Wexler writes op-eds or gives talks at AIPAC, why do they have such a tone of here’s-what-you’re-doing-wrong?
“I don’t want to be cavalier about it,” says Wexler, “but there has been an ongoing effort by the president’s opponents to characterize his policy regarding Israel in a negative light. And while I’m not involved in the politics of it, I am involved in the policy and the substance of it, and it’s just factually inaccurate. And that’s the good news for the president.”
Why is it good news? Because Obama and his allies can win Jewish voters over by explaining this. Obama’s Jewish interlocutors see his current problem as mostly phony, based on a few data points. John Heilemann ran down the big ones in a lengthy New York feature: the call for an end to new settlements, a “snub” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the 1967 borders discussion. On the Republican campaign trail, one of the easiest ways to generate applause is to say something about Obama “throwing Israel under the bus” (Mitt Romney) or “putting Israel at risk” (Michele Bachmann).
To Wexler, it’s all so obvious, and untrue, and exploitive. He takes a current example—the fight over aid to the Palestinian Authority. As the PA bid for statehood at the United Nations, the Republican-led House of Representatives blocked the PA’s unspent funding. It’s a standard Republican line on the trail, more proof of Obama taking the wrong side. That’s nuts. “I wish people, before they make these grandiose proclamations, would take into account at least two factors,” he says. “Number one, take the security impact on Israeli Security Forces. Number two, think of that Israeli mom who’s putting her kid on the bus in the morning—does your action make her kid more or less safe? If you take away that funding, the extraordinary security gains that have been laboriously achieved over the last half a dozen years will be compromised. The Palestinian people will suffer and the Israeli people will suffer as a result. Bankrupting the Palestinian Authority is a boon to Hamas! If you want to help the extremists in Gaza and the West Bank, bankrupt the Palestinian Authority. Go ahead!”
Wexler drums his fingers, taking them off the table only to throw up his hands. The problem with the Obama-skeptics in the GOP, he says, is that their Israel policies are unrealistic, untethered to the peace process that actually exists. What’s the natural conclusion, he asks, of the attack on the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with swaps? Is it no Palestianian state? “You do that,” he says, “and then [Palestinians] say: ‘All right, I’ll take one state—can I have my vote please?’ I remember that Dick Armey—I don’t want to misquote him, I’ll paraphrase him—used to call for the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank. Look. This isn’t the end of World War I. The world isn’t going to permit the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people. Advocating for something that would make Israel less democratic, and less of a moral compass—I don’t think that’s in Israel’s best interest.”
Wexler talks regularly with the administration, but will he be as active a surrogate in 2012 as he was in 2008? He knew this question was coming.
“I will travel the world wide,” he says, “but particularly the United States, to articulate a policy that supports the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I am convinced that the policies that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have championed are the best way forward for the United States and Israel. I will, to the best of my ability objectively articulate why, for the American Jewish community, and everyone else who is interested, why those principles best serve America and Israel.”
Wexler leans back, between the plaque from his old congressional office and the better-days photo of the Obama campaign rally.
“As to where I will specifically be, my guess is that I’ll spend some time in Florida.”