Shapiro given senior Mideast post

Former Jewish outreach coordinator for Obama named senior director for Middle East affairs.

January 26, 2009 23:40
4 minute read.

Daniel Shapiro, a top Obama campaign official once responsible for Jewish outreach, has been put in charge of Middle East issues at the National Security Council. The position of senior director for Middle East and North Africa affairs was held by Elliot Abrams during the first term of former president George W. Bush and was a major force in crafting regional policy. It is not clear whether Shapiro will play the same role, as the Obama administration has emphasized Middle East issues and appointed several additional high-profile figures, including George Mitchell and Dennis Ross, who could cut into the policy-making pie. Shapiro held Middle East policy positions on Capitol Hill before joining the Obama campaign, as well as a more junior role on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House. A former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), he was also a staff adviser to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and to former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana). Shapiro served as a senior adviser on Israeli-Palestinian policy for the Obama campaign and eventually was appointed the Jewish outreach coordinator as well. While the US Jewish community is considered overwhelmingly Democratic, many Jewish voters were at first reluctant to back Obama although they eventually backed him in higher numbers than they did the previous Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. Shapiro joins a growing number of Jewish members of the Obama administration, led most prominently by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior advisor David Axelrod. Though the two have tended to avoid being pigeonholed in terms of their Jewish political roles, both referred to their heritage during the inauguration festivities. During a Jewish community reception the day before the swearing-in, Axelrod recounted the story of his family's escape from Eastern Europe to America. "They weren't just looking for a place of safety, they were looking for a place of promise and opportunity," he said. "American was that beacon." He said he wished his father and grandparents were there to see that not only Obama had been elected to the White House, "but that their son will be 20 feet from the Oval Office, and have a chief of staff named Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Israeli immigrant." For his part, Emanuel said his own mother hadn't necessarily expressed the pride that Axelrod envisioned. "As a former ballet dancer, let me tell you," he told the crowd at an inaugural party, "for all I've done, she still says, 'You could have been a dancer.' No matter what I've done, 'You coulda been a dancer.' Which is what a Jewish mother instills in a child: a sense of failing at all times." Other prominent Jews in the administration include Peter Orszag, the White House budget director, and Larry Summers, who was appointed treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and now serves as chief economic advisor to Obama. While Orszag's job is a cabinet-level post, no Jew is serving in the cabinet itself, making for slightly less prominent Jewish representation than under Clinton or his successor. "George W. Bush got 25 percent of the Jewish vote and was surrounded by Jews - his chief of staff [Josh Bolten], both deputy chiefs of staff [Joel Kaplan and Blake Gottesman], his personal aide [Jared Weinstein], as well as two Double A-plus cabinet slots in Homeland Security [Michael Chertoff] and Justice [Michael Mukasey]," noted one DC-based Jewish official. "Meanwhile, Barack Obama gets almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote, and he's also got some high powered Jews in the West Wing, but the cabinet is judenrein." Speaking somewhat facetiously, he added, "Maybe he's just taking the Jewish vote for granted!" But Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and co-editor of a book on Jews and American politics, pointed out that Obama hasn't finished fleshing out his administration and that Bush also began without Jews in the cabinet. Like Clinton, who put Jews in cabinet positions at Treasury and Labor, as well as in cabinet-level positions, including national security advisor, US trade representative and budget director, the Jewish appointments mostly came in his second term. Forman said that overall, the significant Jewish participation in high-level administration appointments reflected Jewish political participation as a whole. "In American politics today, Jews are the most highly politicized of any ethnic group that I can see, so they are disproportionately represented in government," he said, dismissing conspiracy theories that hold Jewish power responsible. Jewish political strategist Steve Rabinowitz, who served as a press aide in the Clinton White House and now frequently works with the Jewish community, said the large numbers of Jews in government positions have helped mainstream the concept to a point where it's less remarkable even within the Jewish community. "What happened in the Clinton White House and the [Joe] Lieberman vice presidential candidacy in 2000 just sort of brought the community to the place that it's now commonplace. There's just less Jew-counting than there's been in the past," he said of the "favorite pastime" of the Jewish community.\ "It's commonplace, and well it should be," he said. Allison Hoffman contributed to this report.

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