‘Obama had a learning curve'

Rep. Ron Klein says he told president to change Middle East stance.

August 5, 2010 01:25
Ron Klein

Ron Klein 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Barack Obama’s early missteps on Israel were not the result of “bad intentions,” but the product of a Mideast learning process any new US president experiences, Rep.

Ron Klein (D-Florida) said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.

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“There were some things early on that I think President Obama did, which either language- wise or in face-to-face dealing with Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu, was not done in a way that sent the right message, in terms of the true friendship the US and Israel have,” Klein said on Tuesday, shortly after he landed in Israel for a 48-hour visit along with six congressional colleagues.

What “may have been a learning curve problem, or what may have been something that Obama just didn’t understand,” Klein said, was that any “space” between Israel and the US would be exploited by other countries.

Now, the congressman said, the president “gets it.”

Klein’s comments are extremely instructive of the political climate in the US, three months ahead of November 2’s mid-term elections.

The staunchly pro-Israel, Jewish two-term congressman is in a very tight race with Allen West – a Republican Afro-American who’s also a retired US Army lieutenantcolonel and tea party movement supporter – at a time when Obama’s polling numbers continue to fall and incumbents are running scared all across the US.

For instance, primary election results in a few states on Tuesday reflected what The Associated Press characterized as a “strong anti-establishment sentiment and intense desire for new faces,” during a primary season “filled with unanticipated results as tea party hopefuls” shake up races and voters spurn “candidates aligned with the political parties.”

Which doesn’t make Klein’s position enviable: He’s an incumbent Democrat, running against an attractive opponent with tea party credentials.

What this does, however, is help explain why Klein was keen on being interviewed by the Post, and why he conducted a conference call on Wednesday – in the midst of his brief visit here – with journalists back home.

A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he needs to carry the 10-percent Jewish vote in his southern Florida district that includes West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and as such he needs to underline what are genuine pro-Israel credentials.

And he has to do so at a time when no small amount of skepticism remains among Jewish voters as to where Obama’s heart lies regarding Israel.

Obama’s position on Israel, Klein acknowledged, does come up in his conversation with Jewish voters in his district.

When confronted on this issue by skeptical voters, Klein said he makes clear “that when I don’t agree with him [Obama] on specific issues, I say so publicly and have looked him in the eye and told him.”

Klein was among the Jewish House members who met with Obama in May after the president’s widely perceived snub of Netanyahu in March.

“In our meeting at the White House, I said – face to face like I’m talking to you – ‘I don’t agree with your position, we need to change it.’” Klein said that while it was clear disagreements between Israel and the US were inevitable, when the disagreements emerge, “you do it as friends, close friends, like a family.

There are things you say publicly, and things you say behind the scenes. You don’t give your enemies the opportunity to exploit differences between the US and Israel. That is where I think President Obama made his mistake.”

Klein – who was raised in a kosher home in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in a Conservative synagogue, went to Hebrew school and Hebrew high school, and was president of a Jewish fraternity at Ohio State University – said the situation is “much better now. He got the point.”

The congressman said that both Israel and US officials characterized Netanyahu’s meeting last month with Obama as “very positive.” Klein said he was confident that the president’s new tone toward Netanyahu and Israel would continue after the November elections.

Israel, Klein said, had done everything it needed to do to demonstrate a commitment to the diplomatic process.

“It has taken a risk over and over again, whether in Lebanon or in the Gaza Strip or wherever.

In the West Bank right now they are lifting road barriers. Some positive things are happening.

There is economic development.

But where is the reciprocity? Where is the other side coming through with constructive commitments? I don’t see it enough.”

Klein said that Israel needed a “negotiating partner who wants to do business.”

“You can’t unilaterally continue to go down the road of giving things up in exchange for nothing,” he said.

Asked if he believed that Obama “got that,” he responded, “Yes, I think that is an evolution.

I think he absolutely gets that now.”

That being said, Klein stressed that there were many people in the current US political environment “who are trying to make Israel an issue in the campaign.”

“There is a Democratic-Republican thing going on here, where the Republicans are trying to make the case that President Obama is not supportive of Israel, or that the Democrats are not supportive of Israel, which is ridiculous,” he said.

“I am one of the strong supporters of the notion that you never make support of Israel a Democrat or Republican position.

It is a shared, nonpartisan or bipartisan view that needs to be held very tightly – so that when tough times come, people understand this is not just about some party interest or any shortterm view. It is a long-term view and we need uniform support by both parties.”

Klein said that along with some of the mistakes Obama made on Israel early on, there was an abundance of misinformation and exaggeration about the nature of the Obama-Israel relationship.

“But sometimes perception becomes reality, which is why many of us met with Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and President Obama directly, to say directly to him, ‘You need to be on top of this. If this is indeed the close relationship you say it is, and we believe it is, you need to act that way and talk that way.’” Although a February Gallup poll showed that support for Israel was especially strong among Republicans – 85% of Republican voters said they stood with Israel, compared to 48% of the Democrats – Klein said he did not feel that there had been a drop of support for Israel among Democratic voters in his district. Nor, he said, did he feel he would be hurt because he was known as a strong Israel-supporter. His opponent is also articulating pro- Israel positions, and it is not a major issue in his campaign.

As to whether Obama’s recent palpable change of tone on Israel has allayed fears in the American Jewish community, Klein said, “If the [presidential] election were held today, I think there is still some cynicism and skepticism out there. But again, I think if Obama continues to go down the road he has over the last few months, I think those are problems that will go away.”

Since Obama met with the Jewish congressional delegation in May, there have been a number of follow-up meetings with key Obama aides, such as Axelrod and Dennis Ross, and with first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Susan Sher.

“Personally,” Klein said, “I think we are in a much better place and heading in the right direction.”

In an extremely close battle for his job, Klein’s challenge is to convince the Jewish voters in his district of that assessment’s accuracy.

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