Obama confidante emerging as front-runner to be next Presidents Conference chair


WASHINGTON (JTA) — One of Barack Obama’s earliest Jewish backers is emerging as a front-runner to lead the U.S. Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella — the latest sign of efforts to strengthen ties with the president-elect and the incoming administration.

Multiple sources confirmed that Alan Solow, a prominent Chicago-area bankruptcy lawyer who also chairs the national Jewish Community Centers Association, was in contention to replace June Walker, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chairwoman, who died in June.

Harold Tanner, a former Presidents Conference chair, has been serving in an interim capacity but is not interested in another stint.

Solow, who declined to comment, is the natural front-runner, the sources said, in no small part because of his closeness to Obama. Solow has backed Obama since he first ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1996.

Four years ago, when Obama was running for the U.S. Senate and had emerged as a natural leader after his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Solow told JTA that he saw in Obama the qualities of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He specified Obama’s ability to reach across ethnic divides.

“He has reached out to the Jewish community, and the Jewish community has reached out to him,” Solow said at the time.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Presidents Conference, declined to comment on the selection process. Others known to be seeking the post include Moishe Smith, the president of B’nai B’rith International; Stephen Wolnek, the president of Mercaz, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement; and Stanley Chesley, the president of the Jewish National Fund.

Solow’s selection would help heal what some Democrats and Jewish communal insiders describe as a rift between Obama’s team and the Presidents Conference. Relations were never smooth, partly because the conference all but embraced Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq; opposition to that war was Obama’s signature foreign policy during his campaign.

Matters worsened at several points during the campaign, notably when Hoenlein was quoted in Israel as worrying that Obama’s supporters might want to see the United States adopt less pro-Israel positions — Hoenlein said he was misquoted — and later in September when the Presidents Conference invited Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to a rally protesting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the United Nations.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) already had agreed to come, but Democrats were upset that after the decision to bring Palin, the Presidents Conference failed to extend the same invitation to her Democratic counterpart as vice-presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden.

The revelation of Solow’s candidacy comes as representatives of a range of Jewish organizations are preparing to meet Thursday for the first time as a collective with the Obama transition team. Several Jewish groups already have participated in individual meetings with the transition team, including on foreign policy, health care, the environment and hate crimes.

Jewish officials said the level of outreach was a change from a Bush administration that tended to focus narrowly on two areas in its relations with the Jewish community: Israel and faith-based initiatives.

“They are reaching out to the Jewish community, and not just in one meeting,” said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are being included in the meetings on hunger, on hate crimes, on the environment, on faith based — it’s really important because it shows that they are taking the Jewish community very seriously in terms of our policy work, they are not just saying ‘let’s talk about Israel.’ “

Foreign policy issues expected to be featured on Thursday’s agenda include how the Obama team plans to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, Obama’s position on the Bush administration’s late push for Palestinian statehood and whether as president Obama would encourage the Israeli-Syrian peace track.

On domestic policy, Jewish officials said they were less likely to focus on Obama’s grand proposals of universal health care and public works, and more on emergency measures aimed at addressing the current financial crisis, including gaps in funding for Medicare and Medicaid, the entitlement programs that subsidize health care, respectively, for the elderly and the poor.

Jewish groups attending the meeting have been invited to bring policy papers, with a caveat: The transition team’s commitment to transparency means the papers will be posted on the change.gov Web site.

The first Jewish “first hundred days” document to appear on the site is from the Orthodox Union.

“We’re very pleased we’ll have the chance to discuss it in detail with Obama transition officials,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the umbrella group for Orthodox congregations.

In advance of the meeting, Jewish representatives were praising the seniority of the Obama transition team members expected to participate: Tom Perez, the co-chair of transition policy teams on health care and justice; Jim Messina, slated to be the White House deputy chief of staff; and Michael Strautmanis, slated to be the deputy for Valerie Jarrett, the senior political adviser who will handle outside interest groups.

Notably, however, the sole foreign policy official at the meeting will be Dan Shapiro, the former senior Senate staffer who headed Jewish outreach during the campaign. Shapiro, while relatively senior in the transition’s foreign policy hierarchy, does not have equivalent heft to Messina or Perez on domestic issues.

The imbalance suggests that agreement on foreign policy issues between the Jewish establishment and the Obama team has yet to consolidate.

Indeed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is devoting much of next week’s annual Saban Leadership Seminar for emerging pro-Israel leaders to dealing with a new administration. The seminar, for college students and recent graduates, is called “A New Beginning,” and Monday is given over to “A New Administration.”

Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s former top Middle East envoy and a top adviser to Obama, headlines a session called “Obama and the Middle East: What he’s likely to focus on.”

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