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,
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Ron Klein (D-Florida) said in an interview with The Jerusalem
“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
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
Now, the congressman said, the president “gets
Klein’s comments are extremely instructive of the political climate
in the US, three months ahead of November 2’s mid-term elections.
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
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.”
doesn’t make Klein’s position enviable: He’s an incumbent Democrat, running
against an attractive opponent with tea party credentials.
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
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
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 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.”
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
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
In the West Bank right now they are lifting road barriers. Some
positive things are happening.
There is economic development.
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.”
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 being said, Klein stressed that there were many people in
the current US political environment “who are trying to make Israel an issue in
“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
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
“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.
said, “I think we are in a much better place and heading in the right
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.