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Obama's Jewish backers on edge over his Mideast peace plan

May 25, 2011|By Peter Nicholas | Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — President Obama's Jewish fund-raising network is trying to calm uneasy donors who fear that his blueprint for Middle East peace would jeopardize Israel’s security. 

Although Obama's core fund-raising volunteers aren’t panicking, they say his outline for a peace deal has created unexpected obstacles that make it more difficult to meet short-term fund-raising targets.

Obama laid out his vision of a Middle East peace accord in two addresses over the last week: a major speech Thursday and then a kind of do-over before the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Sunday.

Obama's basic proposition is this: A peace deal should take as its starting point the boundary lines in place before Israel made territorial gains in the Six Day War in 1967, coupled with mutually agreeable land swaps.

Obama seems to have placated critics somewhat with his AIPAC speech, providing explicit reassurance that he is not advocating a return to the pre-war lines that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “indefensible.’’ Land swaps mean the new map would look different from the old.

But many in the Jewish community remain worried about what the president said, what he meant and what it all means for Israel.

In Philadelphia, a committee of about 30 Obama supporters is trying to raise about $3 million for an Obama fund-raising dinner set for June 30 at the home of Comcast executive David L. Cohen.

"If the fund-raiser had been last Friday, we would have been in trouble," said Alan Kessler, who has been active in national Democratic fund-raising for years. Describing the reaction of prospective donors, Kessler said: "There are those who have already served notice that they’re just not going to participate. Then there are those who are saying, 'We want to see how this plays out over the next week or so.’ And third, there are those who are with the president and who will stay with the president."

Tom Knox, a businessman who is also helping to raise money for the Philadelphia event, said: "I wish I could tell you there wouldn't be" repercussions from Obama’s remarks. "There's going to be some backlash on it. I don't know why he said it. I think he's just trying to get the talks going again."

Fund-raising is crucial to Obama’s reelection plans, campaign aides say. In a private meeting with Obama supporters at Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia earlier in the spring, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told the group that their strategy "is to start early and big, and they are in fact doing just that," said Peter Buttenwieser, a major Democratic donor who attended the meeting. "They’re raising a lot of money early, and they’re putting a lot of people in the field much earlier than in any election that I can remember. And I think that happens to be smart."

Though even some of Obama’s strongest Jewish supporters were unsettled by his peace plan, they don’t believe a full-fledged fund-raising crisis is in the offing.

Robert Zimmerman, an Obama donor, said: "At such an unstable time in the Middle East, the president’s speech doesn't change the reality that Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and [the speech] runs the risk of undermining Israel."

That said, "I'm not worried in the least about the impact on the reelection or fund-raising. People have concerns, but they’re concerns among friends. There's no doubt about the president’s commitment to Israel. But there are concerns about the approach, the nuances and the ability to accomplish the goal."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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