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McCain camp raps Kurtzer Syria visit

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John McCain’s campaign said a visit to Syria by a senior adviser to Barack Obama underscored the Democratic candidate’s “inexperience.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is a senior adviser on Middle East issues to the campaign of Senator Obama (D-Ill.), traveled to Syria in July with an American Bar Association delegation.

Kurtzer told the New York Sun that he urged the Syrian foreign minister “to move ahead in the Israel-Syria negotiations as much as possible so that whoever is the next president would not start from too far down the track. I did not say anything about Obama or McCain. I said whoever is the next president is not going to want to inherit a process that isn’t going anywhere.”

That report Wednesday spurred the campaign for McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, to suggest in a conference call that Kurtzer was engaged in covert negotiations with Syria. The encounter, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, showed Obama’s “inexperience” in negotiations and “his inability to do so in a way that would be responsible.”

Kurtzer and the Obama campaign said the former ambassador had not visited Damascus in any campaign capacity. Kurtzer, who is Jewish, declined JTA’s interview request.

The McCain surrogates in the call – Giuliani, Michael Goldfarb and Randy Scheunemann – also questioned the propriety of attending a conference underwritten in part by Syrian corporations and co-sponsored by a group with ties to the Assad regime.

They said this did not compare to Giuliani’s law firm’s past representation of Citgo, the Venezuela-owned oil refiner, and of the Saudi oil ministry, nor with Scheunemann’s past lobbying for Georgia. Scheunemann said his lobbying and Giuliani’s lawyering were all part of the public record, although Giuliani’s clients were uncovered by the Associated Press last year after his own presidential campaign declined disclosure requests.

“It is no secret, in fact it’s known openly, that I worked for the Georgians,” Scheunemann said. “It was a secret until this story broke that Ambassador Kurtzer, before he accompanied Senator Obama on his Middle East trip, was in Syria talking to senior Syrian officials.”

It’s not clear that Kurtzer made any effort to hide the visit.

The Obama campaign accused the McCain campaign of hypocrisy.

“Senator McCain’s top aide, Charlie Black, was paid to lobby on behalf of dictators guilty of terrible human rights abuses, and the McCain campaign throws a fit about an unpaid adviser encouraging progress in the ongoing Israeli-Syrian peace talks during his free time?” Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Vietor was referring to Black’s past lobbying for Angolan, Somali, Zairean and other figures.

Abraham Foxman, the national director for the Anti-Defamation League, said he had no problem with Kurtzer’s visit.

“I don’t see any problem as long as he promoted peace,” he said.

Jeremy Ben Ami, who heads the dovish pro-Israel group J Street, said the McCain campaign appeared to be opposing the peace talks.

“It’s not clear what John McCain gains by attacking both stated Israeli government policy and a leading American Jewish diplomat,” Ben Ami said.

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