Jewish groups set to back Obama on Syria

Jewish groups backing President Obama’s call to strike Syria are citing moral outrage and U.S. national security as primary considerations — but concern for Israel, however muted, also looms large in their thinking.

A lingering sensitivity over misrepresentations of the role of the pro-Israel community in the leadup to the Iraq War in 2003 kept the groups from weighing in on Syria until it was clear that President Obama was determined to strike, and is now leading them to downplay any mention of Israel.

Officials of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, finishing up a conference call Tuesday afternoon with top security advisers to Obama, waited until the White House staffers were off the call, and then urged constituent organizations not to make their statements “Israel-centric” because of the sensitivities.

Notably, Israel was not mentioned in any of the three statements that emerged immediately following on the conference call, which was convened to solidify support for Obama’s call for a strike. These came from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Of the three statements, only AIPAC’s even alluded to Israel.

“America’s allies and adversaries are closely watching the outcome of this momentous vote,” said the AIPAC statement. “This critical decision comes at a time when Iran is racing toward obtaining nuclear capability. Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country’s credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies.”

Instead, the statements focused on the need to contain a nation tat has crossed a red line by using chemical weapons against its citizens.

“Those who perpetuate such acts of wanton murder must know that they can not do so with impunity,” said the Presidents’ Conference statement. “Those who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, must see that there is accountability.”

Israel nonetheless loomed large in the off the record conference call between Jewish officials and two top national security advisers to Obama, both in the questions and in how the White House officials cast their replies. One Jewish official asked whether the United States would assist militarily should Syria attack Israel. (The answer: Yes, but it is the U.S. assessment that Syrian President Bashar Assad is not that reckless.)

One of the White House officials repeatedly emphasized that acting to keep Syria from using chemical weapons was a critical step to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — a key Israeli demand.

The White House staffers made clear why they were reaching out to the Jewish community; they sought its influence in garnering the congressional support for a strike that Obama says he wants before going ahead.

Obama on Tuesday met with top congressional officials and repeated his appeal to support limited strikes on Syria to degrade its chemical weapons capability. The meeting came on the heels of the president’s decision over the weekend to seek congressional approval prior to any military move.

“This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences,” Obama said before the meeting.

As he has done repeatedly since first indicating his intention to strike Syria, Obama cited the potential threat to Israel, among other American allies, as one of his concerns.

“This norm against using chemical weapons that 98 percent of the world agrees to is there for a reason,” he said. “Because we recognize that there are certain weapons that when used cannot only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors; can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey; and unless we hold them into account, also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don’t mean much.

A number of officials close to Jewish organizations said a full endorsement was a natural for a community that was among those who were reviled by the suspected chemical weapons attack last month by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. The attack near Damascus killed an estimated 1,400 people, including 400 children.

“It’s hard to imagine there’s a rabbi alive who has a High Holiday service who is not going to talk about a Syria,” said one Jewish official who often brokers relations between the White House and the Jewish community.

Until Obama declared over the weekend that he was ready to strike, however, Jewish groups had been reluctant to weigh in on American intervention, in part because of the hangover from unwarranted attacks in the last decade blaming Jewish lobbying for the Iraq War. Foxman said such hesitations were obviated by Obama’s explicit call for a strike.

“The president has made his decision and we’re not ahead of it,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, told JTA. “He’s not doing this for Israel. This may have serious ramifications for Israel which are negative.”

Administrations have traditionally sought Jewish community support for foreign policy initiatives, but in this case, congressional insiders the influence of AIPAC and other Jewish groups may be limited.

The Tea Party caucus among Republicans, which has an isolationist streak, has since its 2010 elections triumph resisted AIPAC pressure to back a robust foreign assistance program, without repercussions. Among Democrats, the insiders said, the progressives who are wary of another foreign war, are likelier to heed anti-war voices than the pro-Israel lobby. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who is Jewish and has been a pro-Israel and progressive stalwart, has been a leader in expressing skepticism about a strike.

Other Jewish lawmakers have robustly backed a strike, preeminent among them Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and one of the highest profile Jewish lawmakers, invoked the Holocaust over the weekend in making such a case.

“As a Jew, the concept of ‘Never Again’ has to mean something,” she told CNN.

Some groups have already been lobbying for several weeks. An official in a Florida lawmaker’s office said the office had already been flooded with calls and emails from Jewish federations and constituents urging the lawmaker to back Obama’s plan.

Obama this week won the backing of Republican leaders, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the House Speaker and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority leader, and the most senior Jewish lawmaker.

Cantor cited a key Israeli concern, that an Assad emerged unscathed from the use of weapons of mass destruction would embolden its sponsor, Iran.

“America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States,” he said in a statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has remained silent on the Syria matter, in part, its officials have told interlocutors because it sees no good outcome.

Such a posture is markedly different from the one assumed bhy then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in late 2005, when Israeli officials urged U.S. Jewish groups to talk the administration of President George W. Bush from considering regime change in Syria, arguing then that as bad as Bashar Assad’s government was, the alternatives were worse.