WASHINGTON (JTA) — The "fire-breathing liberal" has sucked the air out of the room.
A soft-spoken retirement announcement by the usually outspoken U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) has left Democrats, Republicans, Jews and non-Jews expressing reactions that ranged from baffled to… baffled.
"We were stunned," said one source close to the congressional leadership. Figures in the pro-Israel community expressed similar sentiments.
What makes the move even more perplexing is that Wexler, who dubbed himself the "fire-breathing liberal" in his manifesto published last year, is ending a very public political career that has had a virtually unimpeded upward swing to become a think-tank diplomat — the kind of figure who does his best work behind the scenes without taking credit.
Wexler, 48, will lead the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, a group co-founded by S. Daniel Abraham, the Slim-Fast diet food magnate whom Wexler named in his book as a "close friend" and the funder of Wexler’s Middle East travel in the past
The group has existed since 1993 and was prominent during the heyday of the Oslo peace process launched that year, but it has been moribund since the death in 2002 of its co-founder, former Utah congressman Wayne Owens.
"Taking over as president of the Center for Middle East Peace offers me an unparalleled opportunity to work on behalf of Middle East peace for an important and influential non-profit institute," Wexler said in a statement. "After much discussion with my family, I have decided that I cannot pass up on this opportunity."
The problem with his explanation is that the congressman, who was unavailable for an interview, already is in a position to exert considerable influence on Middle East policy.
As chairman of the Europe subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Wexler lobbied European nations to join in isolating Iran isolation and helped sustain Israel’s role as a NATO satellite country. He was effective, too, in bringing Turkey into the process as a Mideast broker.
Wexler was the first major Jewish political figure to join the Obama campaign, in 2007, just after the then-senator had declared his candidacy. Obama’s political mastermind, David Axelrod — now a senior White House adviser — advised his candidate to woo Wexler as the iconoclast likeliest to break Hillary Rodham Clinton’s then-stranglehold on Jewish support.
With a stand-up comic’s hands-in-the-pocket, cards-on-the-table demeanor, Wexler ventured during the campaign into redoubts of Jewish support for Clinton such as Ohio. Thrown into a grind of twice-daily appearances, Wexler would loosen up the audience with jokes about how refreshing it was to address voters about a half-century younger than the average age in his Florida constituency before launching into a vigorous defense of Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy to rebuild America’s reputation abroad.
"When that new day of trans-Atlantic relations emerges, Israel too will be a great beneficiary," he told a crowd in Cleveland.
Some voters who were skeptical about Obama before Wexler’s presentation said afterward that he won them over.
Much was made in the weeks before last year’s election of the supposed reluctance of Florida’s elderly Jews to back a black candidate whose middle name was Hussein. Obama won Florida handily, and the problems likely were overstated, but Wexler earned credit for tirelessly working the state’s retirement homes, where he is beloved.
Wexler has commanded respect from Jewish liberals and centrists by combining support for robust U.S. diplomacy in pursuit of a two-state solution with a strong defense of Israel’s response to Hamas rocket attacks, steering clear of criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies and arguing that Obama needs to do a better job of selling his policies directly to the Israeli public.
So why would Wexler give up such precious political capital?
In the absence of a more detailed explanation, journalists and policymakers who thought they knew Wexler could only speculate: He was positioning himself for an Obama administration peace-brokering role. After 14 years he had tired of the congressional grind. The most common reason proffered was that he needs the money (the lawmaker has three children who attend a pricey Jewish day school).
Wexler, reached by The Associated Press, said nothing exciting was up.
"I am not under any investigation. My marriage is intact. My health is good and, thank God, the health of my family is good," he said. "I am leaving to become the president of the Center for Middle East Peace. It may not be as sexy as some other things, but this is what I’m doing."
The only episode approaching a scandal in recent years reinforces the notion that Wexler is eager for a change: An opponent discovered in 2008 that the Delray Beach residence Wexler listed as his was in fact his in-laws.
This, it turns out, was not illegal, but in the course of the reporting it became clear that Wexler prefers his Washington-area community in suburban Potomac, Md., where he and his family attend Beth Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue.
Wexler is perhaps one of the most unabashed Jews in Congress; he does not hide his affiliations. His wife, Laurie, has worked for the American Jewish Committee. Stumping in the tiniest of far-flung towns during Obama’s campaign, he had an unerring scent for whatever local deli was selling Jewish — or at least Jewish-style — fare.
In his book, he gleefully joined his liberalism and his advocacy for Israel into pugnaciousness.
Wexler describes in his book a contentious Abraham-funded visit to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and his growing impatience with Arab leaders who tried to persuade him that the U.S.-Israel alliance was to blame for terrorism.
"At times it has been difficult to hold my temper," he wrote. "In Kuwait, for example, I almost got into a fistfight with the chairman of their International Relations Committee. And he isn’t even a Republican."
Wexler was the only congressman who called for an investigation into the FBI probe that led to the government’s failed case against two former staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. He maintained his support for the two even after AIPAC had cut them loose.
Wexler has earned something of an attack dog reputation, dating back to the late 1990s and his first congressional term, when he accused his colleagues of being the real "perverts" in the impeachment proceedings for salaciously combing through the details of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. He fought back hard against the Florida tallies in the 2000 Gore-Bush recount; his Broward and Palm Beach counties constituents were among the disenfranchised.
In last year’s election, Wexler earned Republican scorn when his accusation that Sarah Palin had been associated in the past with World War II revisionist Pat Buchanan turned out to be baseless. He maintains a close friendship, however, with Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist.
Wexler, a Florida state legislator before his 1996 election to Congress, also has been a champion of Holocaust survivors and their claims against European institutions.
The congressman has been unswervingly loyal to Turkey; his was the only Jewish vote in 2007 on the Foreign Relations Committee against recognizing the World War I Ottoman Empire massacre of Armenians as "genocide."
Such uncompromising postures suggest a reason for Wexler’s comity with Abraham, who also has a confrontational reputation: In 1998, Abraham recalled in his book, "Peace is Possible," that he almost destroyed his center’s credibility in important pro-Israel circles by telling President Clinton at a White House dinner that it was clear that he, Arab leaders and even Yasser Arafat wanted to make peace, but wondered: "Do we know if Bibi (Netanyahu) wants to make peace?"
That earned a sharp rebuke from Ezer Weizman, the late Israeli president, who was present at the dinner.
Netanyahu is back in office, and Wexler has good relations with the prime minister’s team. Hiring Wexler could garner good graces with Israel’s current government for Abraham’s organization.
The three candidates lining up to replace Wexler are all Jewish: state Sens. Ted Deutch and Jeremy Ring, and Broward County Mayor Stacy Ritter. Deutch, whose district most overlaps with Wexler’s, is said to have the best chance. Last year he helped shepherd through one of the first Iran divestment laws in a U.S. state.
Jewish Democrats said Wexler is here to stay as a presence.
"He has a deep and lasting commitment to the State of Israel and assuring a lasting and secure peace for Israel," said David Harris, the president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "This move is a testament to how deep his convictions run."