The advisers: Who has the ear of the presidential candidates?

WASHINGTON (JTA) – When the question of recognizing Israel landed on President Harry Truman’s desk in May 1948, he had to balance the advice of his old friend, Clark Clifford, against the general he deeply admired, George Marshall.

In the end Truman went with his friend, recognizing the new Jewish state.

It may be easy to read too much into who a candidate’s advisers are during an election campaign, but it’s also risky to avoid the tea leaves.

Obama’s Advisers

In sizing up the candidates’ advisers, most of the scrutiny in the Jewish community has been on Barack Obama – in part because of his inexperience on the national stage and in part because of Republican campaign tactics.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has issued a string of statements and advertisements portraying Obama as relying on advisers who are hostile either to Israel or the pro-Israel lobby. In the case of two veterans of past Democratic administrations – Carter-era national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Clinton-era aide Robert Malley – the concerns seem overblown: Neither has played a meaningful roll in the Obama campaign or in forming Obama’s policy agenda, contrary to conservative claims.

Obama has, however, reached out to several lawmakers and military figures who have demonstrated a willingness to buck or criticize the pro-Israel lobby. But, according to the Obama camp, the advisers most intimately involved in Israel-related policies are veterans of the Clinton administration and come out of a pro-Israel milieu.

Dennis Ross: Obama’s campaign insists that the Democratic nominee’s top adviser on Israel and Iran is Dennis Ross, who played a lead role in peace talks during the first Bush and Clinton presidencies. Ross is now at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is joined by a staff that has leaned more toward neo-conservatism – and Republicans – than he has. Ross’ position at the institute is a testament to his ability to cross the aisle – an approach that jibes with Obama’s insistence that he will be a bipartisan president.

Ross is widely respected in the Jewish community but has been criticized in more conservative circles for what critics say was his failure to hold Yasser Arafat accountable for failing to live up to Palestinian commitments.

In his 2004 book, Ross made it eminently clear that at times he found then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be untrustworthy. But Ross also has insisted that the United States and Israel should have done more to hold the Palestinians to their agreements – and has consistently blamed Arafat for the failure to reach a final settlement at the end of the Clinton administration.

Ross has criticized the Bush administration for not being engaged enough in peace talks – but also for announcing unrealistic goals for achieving a two-state solution.

By contrast, he told JTA, an Obama admnistration would play a more hands-on role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking – but also steer clear of any "artificial" timelines. He says the creation of a Palestinian state is impossible so long as Hamas controls Gaza.

For these reasons, Ross has suggested, Obama’s emphasis would be more on Iran. Ross is one of the principle architects of Obama’s Iran policy: engagement induced through tough sanctions. His laundry list of possible new sanctions aimed at getting Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program – the re-insurance industry, refined petrol exporters, central bank – echoes exactly those of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby.

Obama’s other key advisers include:

* Anthony Lake, Clinton’s first national security adviser and an early Obama backer, apparently hopes to return the post. A relatively recent convert to Judaism, Lake has said that rallying the international community to further isolate Iran would be Obama’s first foreign policy priority.

* Mara Rudman, a deputy on the Clinton national security team, also could end up in an Obama administration. Since leaving government, she served as a deputy to Lawrence Eagleberger, the former secretary of state, during his chairmanship of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. Last year, she helped launch Middle East Progress, a group that puts out a thrice-weekly e-mail bulletin partly to counter the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization’s influential Daily Bulletin, which has been accused of having a sharp neo-conservative tilt.

* Dan Shapiro and Eric Lynn are two Obama campaign officials who straddle the policy and politics arms of the campaign. Lynn is Shapiro’s deputy. Both help shape policy – Shapiro is said to be the lead writer on Obama’s Middle East speeches – and both spend a lot of time campaigning in the Jewish community. Both also have Florida connections and can boast of insider status in the pro-Israel community. Lynn was an intern at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 1998; Shapiro played a major role in drafting the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, that year’s marquee victory for AIPAC.

* Daniel Kurtzer joined the Obama camp during the primaries. President Clinton made him the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to Egypt, and the current President Bush went one better, making him the first Orthodox Jewish U.S. ambassador to Israel. Kurtzer, who left the diplomatic corps in 2005 after his Israel stint for a teaching job at Princeton University, may have the most dovish views on the foreign policy team.

Prior to joining the campaign this year, Kurtzer co-authored a U.S. Institute of Peace tract that advocated equal pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. While he was ambassador to Israel, the Zionist Organization of America pressed Bush to fire him. But Kurtzer’s Jewish street cred has helped alleviate concern in many pro-Israel circles – in addition to his stint in Israel, Kurtzer is a product of Yeshiva University and trains kids for bar mitzvah.

* The word from Obama circles is that two Republican senators – Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is retiring and whose wife has endorsed Obama, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – could end up in an Obama administration.

Both men have shared Obama’s concerns about the conduct of the Iraq war. Of the two Republicans, Hagel is the more problematic for the pro-Israel community. He didn’t make friends last year when he told an Arab American Institute dinner that his support for Israel was not “automatic.” Lugar has not made such missteps, but his willingness to criticize Israeli policies in Senate hearings and his advocacy of direct dialogue with Iran have raised eyebrows.

McCain’s Advisers

As a longtime veteran of Washington, John McCain has accumulated his own list of confidants that would worry many pro-Israel activists.

During the lead up to the 2000 presidential primaries, McCain was quoted as saying that he would turn to Brzezinski for advice. This time around, he voiced admiration for two veterans of the Bush administration, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, who are associated with the realist camp that advocated for pressure on Israel. McCain also held a news conference with Baker touting the former secretary of state’s endorsement.

That said, while McCain favors a two-state solution and support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he has demonstrated no intention to pressure Israel on the Jerusalem issue. And he has diverged from the realist camp in supporting the Iraq war and taking a hard line on Iran. The foreign-policy advisers most associated with McCain’s campaign hail from the neo-conservative camp.

* McCain has said his top foreign policy adviser would be his closest friend in the Senate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). McCain is said to have sorely wanted Lieberman, an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, on the ticket as his vice president; now McCain’s reportedly considering the self-described Independent Democrat for secretary of state. Lieberman’s longstanding friendship with McCain and a shared commitment to a tough interventionist neo-conservative foreign policy led to an endorsement a year ago that helped McCain resuscitate his campaign in New Hampshire.

* James Woolsey, like Lieberman, is one of a small army of “Scoop” Jackson Democrats at the core of the McCain campaign: Like their late idol Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), who ran a couple of abortive presidential campaigns in the 1970s, they are domestic liberals who have set aside social differences to join conservatives in pressing what they consider the more urgent matter: American preeminence overseas.

Woolsey, a Clinton administration CIA director, is a tough-minded environmentalist: According to Mother Jones, a Web site devoted to investigative journalism, Woolsey drives a hybrid car plastered with the sticker “Bin Laden Hates This Car.” Early on he pressed for the Iraq war, and he is notorious for being among the first to blame Iraq – erroneously – for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He also exemplifies how the McCain campaign talks tough about confronting Iran while emphasizing behind-the-scenes that the military option should be a last resort.

* Randy Scheunemann, like Shapiro in the Obama campaign, straddles policy and politics in the McCain campaign. A veteran of years on Capitol Hill who worked principally for former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and an icon among neo-conservatives, Scheunemann has shaped some of the toughest campaign attacks on Obama, including those related to Obama’s stated willingness to sit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Scheunemann also led efforts to pitch the Iraq war to the American public prior to the invasion.

In recent years, Scheunemann has lobbied for a number of nations seeking membership in NATO. His expertise on Georgia helped McCain gain the upper hand over a flustered Obama during the crisis over the summer when Russia invaded Georgia.

Scheunemann is also close to the pro-Israel community. Working with Lott, he authored the 1995 legislation that would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; a year later, Scheunemann’s advice led Bob Dole – the Republican presidential candidate that year – to pledge to do so. This year, McCain has picked up that pledge.

* Max Boot is too young to have been an architect of neo-conservatism; at times he embraces the term and at times he chafes at it.

A historian who is probably the McCain adviser most steeped in theory and least steeped in policy-making, Boot wrote the definitive article arguing for the expansion of American power in the wake of 9/11. At a recent retreat organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Boot said a McCain administration would de-emphasize Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks to an even greater degree than the Bush administration (though McCain and his running mate both have suggested that the Arab-Israeli peace process would be a top priority). Boot, currently a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, says the late push by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is regrettable.

* Richard Williamson is President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan. His work pressing the regime to end the genocide in its Darfur region have deepened his ties with the Jewish community, which date back to Williamson’s time as a member of the Reagan administration’s U.N. team.

Williamson’s pre-campaign writings are very much in the realist camp. A veteran of disarmament talks, he wrote an article in 2003 for the Chicago Journal of International Law praising the efficacy of multilateral treaties, a bugbear of neo-conservatives. But Williamson’s shift at the recent Washington Institute retreat to neo-conservative talking points could be a signal of how much McCain has invested in that camp. At the retreat, Williamson suggested that a McCain administration would not avidly pursue Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace, and he touted McCain’s proposal for a “league of democracies,” a repudiation of conventional thinking on multilateralism.

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