Ron Kampeas
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) (Blog)
April 16, 2010 - 12:00am

Robert Wexler, the unstoppable congressman from Florida who stopped everyone in their tracks a few months ago when he, um, stopped being a congressman came out tonight in his new incarnation, as the president of the Center for Middle East Peace.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was the keynote speaker at the event, and made a little news when she called on the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel -- or, more accurately, when she did so forcefully, "urging" them back to the table. (The State Department routinely calls for the parties to return to talks.) She also repeated calls for an end to incitement and bluntly warned Israel that opening up a road or two or even a hundred was not enough; Palestinians needed a real settlement freeze and more humanitarian assistance for Gaza if they were to be persuaded.

In his speech, Wexler joked about the differences between being a lawmaker and a think tank chief. Most pronouncedly, he had to deal daily with a "board of director" (singular) -- S. Daniel Abraham, the Slim-Fast magnate who founded the center. The CMEP was a force during the Olso years, but has been more or less moribunds since 2002, when its co-founder, former Utah congressman Wayne Owens, died.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Abraham decided to revive the center with George W. Bush's departure from office, and the election of Barack Obama as president. He was already close to Wexler and saw him as a natural. Wexler, eager for a change that would catapult him back into normalcy (a relative term, true, but little is less normal than the being a congressman), took the job.

I asked Wexler exactly what his new job entailed (despite tonight's formal "inauguration" he's been at it more than three months.)

"I had one condition" for taking the job, he told me. "That we support the efforts of the Obama administration."

Wexler had been the first major Jewish figure to line up behind Obama instead of Clinton during the campaign, and became Obama's principal Jewish proxy.

"We work in tandem to assist the administration in pursuing a just and comprehensive peace," he said. To that end, he said, he has so far had meetings with officials of the Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian governments, and governments in the moderate Persian Gulf nations, "to find areas for potential cooperation."

What does that mean? "There are areas where government actors may not want to engage directly," he said. "There's a role for a trusted friend to play."

For instance: Abraham is a fervent advocate of the Arab league peace plan launched in 2002, and initiated by the Saudis. Israeli governments have said the plan has positive elements, but want to see more flexibility on borders (the plan calls for a return to 1967 borders, including in Jerusalem, in exchange for comprehensive peace) and want to tighten loopholes on refugees language that could otherwise lead to international pressure on Israel to allow a massive influx of Palestinians.

Wexler has been working with Jordan in recent weeks to help "evolve" the plan to better reflect "the needs of the Israeli government and the views of the American government."

(The Jordanian foreign minister happened to be in attendance.)

I also asked Wexler whether Clinton's direct call on the Palestinian Authority to end its talks boycott -- a salve to Jewish complaints that the Obama administration has in recent weeks seemed to care more about Israeli settlements than Palestinian intransigence -- was a signal that the White House would more directly engage with the community. The buzz is that Obama, who has proven adept at controlling the narrative in other arenas, is doing virtually nothing to make his case to Israel and the Jews.

Wexler fell back on a familiar argument, that the administration has done more in its first year to bolster the defense relationship than its predecessors. There's something to this -- Israeli officials admit as much, although the qualitative military edge programs that Obama's Pentagon embraces (and with genuine eagerness) were launched in Bush's last years.

But that wasn't my question: This QME argument is almost always a defensive one; when does Obama proactively explain himself to the Jews? I asked. "Actions in the next several months will begin to reflect it," he said.

One thing that was nice to see: A lot of us traveling the Beltway Jewish circuit occasionally get sick of it, and imagine a Jewless tropical paradise where we can pick the colorful paper umbrellas out of our fruit drinks, nary a "Gevalt!" in shreying distance.

But Wexler seems to really love his new Jewy existence. "I'm sensitive to the American Jewish community," he told me. "I always have been and always will be."

It was a reminder that maybe this circuit ain't so bad.

Although. I'll check with him in a year or so.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017