Jay Footlik scanned the Tel Aviv caf , his regular shelter from the midday heat, and what he didn’t see upset him.
He was almost alone. It was the spring of 2002, and most Israelis were staying behind closed doors, waiting for the next bomb.
Footlik ordered coffee and listened to the hourly news on the radio: President Bush wanted the Israeli army immediately to leave the West Bank towns where it was pursuing an aggressive campaign against Palestinian terrorists after a Passover suicide bombing killed 30 people.
What he didn’t hear upset him even more: Where was Bush’s plan to bring the parties back to peace talks?
“You can’t say you care about the safety and security of Israelis and not be involved,” Footlik said. “Israel is less secure when our country takes a step back. That’s what Bush has done for four years.”
The need to “be involved” spurred the former Clinton White House official to leave a relaxed existence shuttling back and forth between a beachside Tel Aviv apartment and U.S. speaking engagements, and into this year’s political fray.
Footlik, 38, now is the top Jewish outreach person in the campaign of U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
Coming back wasn’t an easy choice for Footlik. His existence since 1999 — freelancing in Israel as a consultant to a number of peace-promoting groups, and speaking to Jewish federations in the United States — was a welcome change from his frenetic years campaigning for Clinton and then working as the White House’s chief Jewish outreach official.
“What was going to be a one-year stay became four years,” Footlik said during a recent interview, smiling at the memory. “It was hard to leave Israel.”
Footlik was on his way to assimilating into a happy Israeli existence. His wife, Grace Mozes, an Israeli model and actress, is part of an established Brazilian-Israeli family.
Yet it was his Israeli family and friends who urged Footlik to go back to Washington’s rough-and-tumble world.
“Where are the Americans?” he recalled them asking as the situation in Israel worsened. “Across the political spectrum, Labor, Likud — everyone wanted to know. I was feeling the absence up close.”
“I thought it was historic, from a Jewish standpoint, and I would be working for a politician who inspired me,” he said.
Lieberman said Footlik was a natural.
“He’s the best in the business and a real class act,” Lieberman told JTA.
Footlik agreed to act as Lieberman’s liaison to the Jewish community until January 2004, when he was to return to Israel to plan for his February wedding. After that, Footlik had a job lined up with RSLB, a Washington-based company promoting Israel’s high-tech sector in the United States.
But then the call came from the Kerry campaign.
Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, who worked with Footlik on the Lieberman campaign, said bringing Footlik on board was inevitable.
Calling on Footlik was a smart move for the Kerry campaign, according to Jewish organizational officials who dealt with Footlik during the Clinton years. Kerry’s Jewish message had been fuzzy during the primaries; he appeared to hedge on supporting Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
“Remember, they came out of the primaries without much of an internal organization,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
With Footlik, “they have someone knowledgeable about the community as well as the substantive issues. Their outreach to the community has broadened.”
The changes were almost immediate. As soon as Footlik was aboard, Kerry issued a statement unequivocally supporting Israel’s security fence.
Footlik also faults the president for not following up on his “road map” peace plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“It’s easy to talk the talk, but you’ve got to walk the walk,” he said of Bush’s commitment to getting peace talks back on track. He says Bush promised greater involvement but then got distracted.
“This president promised to ‘ride herd,’ ” he said. “If he was a cowboy, the cattle would be lost.”
Footlik has a soft-spoken approach, a ready smile and an uncanny ability to read an interlocutor, some say.
“There are so many Democrats in the Jewish community who think they’re important,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Being a liaison needs a special level of wisdom and delicacy.”
It helps that Footlik is on Kerry’s foreign policy team, regularly consulting with Rand Beers, formerly a White House counterterrorism expert, and Joseph Wilson, the senior diplomat in Iraq during the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War.
Footlik has had an abiding interest in the Middle East since he studied political science at the University of California Los Angeles 20 years ago, said Stephen Spiegel, his professor there.
“He was one of my top three or four students of all time, and that’s out of thousands,” said Spiegel, who remains in touch with Footlik. “What makes Jay particularly qualified is that he was in Israel, he knows all the players, Likud and Labor.”
Footlik also gets kudos from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
“He was always very attuned to the concerns of the pro-Israel community,” said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director. “Israel matters a great deal to him.”
It was Footlik’s White House career that afforded him his first chance to visit the Jewish state, in 1994, accompanying Clinton to the signing of the Jordan-Israel peace agreement.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was so excited,” Footlik said. “And then it was all of seven hours we were there.”
Until then, Footlik hadn’t been able to afford a trip to Israel.
He was raised in Skokie, Ill., by a single mother. Her difficulties paying the bills and getting health care were what drew Footlik to Democratic politics.
Footlik remembers wandering into a campaign office for Abner Mikva, a longtime Illinois Jewish representative, when he was 7 or 8 years old, and offering to stuff envelopes.
Other careers beckoned: He began acting in TV commercials at age 12 and headed to California when he was 17 to break into movies. He appears in a 1985 Michael J. Fox comedy, “Teen Wolf.”
Footlik still maintains his Screen Actors’ Guild membership.
His Hollywood good looks and law-school training serve Footlik well in Washington’s political culture, which values glamour and horse-trading in equal measures. He has a list of contacts that would make most Washington lobbyists envious.
Among his contacts is Michael Lebovitz, his counterpart in the Bush campaign, whom he knows from the speakers’ circuit of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization. They exchange friendly e-mails chiding each other about their respective candidates.
At Kerry campaign headquarters, Footlik gets warm greetings from all sides.
“What strikes me is his ability to acquire and maintain friends,” said Yuval Rabin, son of the late Israeli prime minister, who hired Footlik at RSLB. “I hope he comes back to work for us.”
That doesn’t appear likely if Kerry wins in November. Footlik won’t say what his post-election plans are, but he speaks with fervor of a Kerry administration.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.