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Obama: Ross gives me Mideast advice

Then-U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, right, talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999. ()

Then-U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, right, talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999. ()

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told a group of Jewish communal lay leaders that he is receiving advice on Middle East issues from Dennis Ross.

The Democratic presidential hopeful made the disclosure during a closed meeting in New York with 25 Jewish leaders, according to a Jewish organizational source familiar with what was said at the gathering. It comes, as the senator’s campaign is making a concerted effort to reach out to the Jewish community across the country.

Obama is popular with many key Jewish figures in Illinois. But, observers say, a few flaps have left some hawkish Jewish Democrats with questions about the senator. Earlier this year, Obama told an Iowa audience that “nobody suffers more” than the Palestinians in the Middle East. That drew sharp questions from pro-Israel groups, but Obama later pointed critics to the whole quote, in which he principally blamed the Palestinian leadership for its people’s suffering. He also raised eyebrows at a recent debate when he said he would meet the leaders of pariah states like Syria and Iran within his first year of office.

The association with Ross could help Obama solve a key dilemma: how to win the confidence of hawkish pro-Israel donors without alienating his anti-war base.

Ross, who served in the State Department of both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration, has displayed a rare ability to command respect from a wide swath of the political spectrum within the Jewish community. As the architect of President Clinton’s Middle East peace efforts and consistent voice for more robust American diplomatic efforts, Ross has secured the support of the community’s more dovish wing. At the same time, he has earned respect in more hawkish circles with his willingness to blame Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the collapse of the peace process and challenge those who say the pro-Israel lobby controls U.S. foreign policy.

Eric Lynn, Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community, told JTA that his boss and Ross have had a relationship for several years.

“He says, ‘Tony Lake and Susan Rice are my top foreign policy advisers,’ but when it comes to the Middle East, Dennis Ross informally advises the senator.”

Obama “certainly values his counsel and would continue to value his counsel as he moves forward,” Lynn said. “He views Dennis as a friend and they talk often about situations, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian situation.”

The director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, praised Ross.

“There are very few people in the United States more experienced, more knowledgeable more astute in understanding the subtleties, issues and opportunities for American foreign policy in the Arab Israel conflict than Dennis Ross,” Foxman said. “It is a feather in the cap of whichever candidate has the foresight to make him part of his team. He has not only an understanding, not only does he have experience, he’s also creative in terms of setting forth options, he’s worked both sides of the political street on this issue. Even the Arabs have learned to have respect for his knowledge and creativity.”

Dan Shapiro, an outside adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign, who helped organize the meeting Wednesday but did not attend, said that the gathering was part of a wider outreach effort to the Jewish community.

“He’s reached out to Jewish leaders in major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York,” Shapiro said. “He’ll be doing it in other cities. He would like to expand his ties.”

Shapiro said the aim was to reach beyond Obama’s Illinois base, but acknowledged that the senator lags behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in garnering Jewish support. “It’s no surprise that a senator relatively new to the national stage hasn’t yet had the opportunity to build a wide network of supporters,” Shapiro said.

The campaign would not name those who attended, noting that the meeting was private and off the record. Jewish communal and Obama campaign sources said the meeting was a success.

The director of the Orthodox Union’s Washington office, Nathan Diament, said on his blog that the organization’s president, Steve Savitsky, attended the meeting. According to Diament’s blog post, the current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, June Walker, and her immediate predecessor, Harold Tanner, were also in attendance.

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