AIPAC’s new spokesman Marshall Wittmann has a wandering eye, at least when it comes to politics.
Wittmann was once a lobbyist for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. He’s also a onetime Trotskyite who has served as a spokesman for labor unions – as well as for Republican Sen. John McCain.
In 2006, the New York Times called him “one of the great career vagabonds, ideological contortionists and political pontificators ever to inflict himself on a city full of them,” as Daniel Treiman noted.
Wittmann has apparently held every conceivable political conviction during his lengthy Washington career, swinging from the far left to the far right. He wound up somewhere on the center-right in his latest post as a spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut.
As the flack for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Wittmann will be the voice of the famously press-shy pro-Israel group. His lack of ideological constancy could be a boon at AIPAC, which goes to great lengths to represent itself as nonpartisan.
Wittmann takes a position that’s been more or less vacant since Josh Block left in 2010. Block has recently been named head of The Israel Project.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections in September followed a “discreet” meeting with leaders of AIPAC, who told him that polls show President Obama heading for reelection in November—so writes Maariv chief diplomatic correspondent Ben Caspit, as reported by Noam Sheizaf on the left-wing, English-language Israeli site 972mag.com blog.
Here’s Caspit, as translated by Sheizaf:
Netanyahu’s surprising announcement on the early primaries in the Likud, which fell on his party’s senior member like thunder on a cloudless day, came three days after a discrete meeting he held with the chiefs of AIPAC, that estimated, based on polls, that Barack Obama would also be the next president.
Bibi knew he can’t campaign when Obama is in his second term. This [would be] a dangerous gamble. Sheizaf goes on to note that the September 4 Knesset elections will come during the Democratic National Convention, which means that “Instead of the U.S. president possibly playing a role—deliberately or not – in the Israeli elections, Netanyahu will get a chance to play a part in the American one.” No, Noam, it’s not a coincidence.
Speaking of Israeli elections, two new political parties are forming on the right:
In addition to Mitt Romney’s remarks at AIPAC yesterday, arguing that his approach to Iran would be a radical break from Obama’s (though nothing he said indicated how it would be different), one of his high-profile foreign policy advisers, Dan Senor, also had a well-placed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making similar points but with not much more substance.
Senor, who some will remember was the Bush administration’s spokesman in the first days of the Iraq War and more recently the author of “Start-Up Nation,” about Israel’s successes in high tech, briefly flirted in 2010 with a run for Senate from New York. He has since hunkered down with Romney and is presumably a key part of his brain trust when it comes to figuring out the Middle East.
Senor set out to explain, as the headline of the op-ed put it, “Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama.” He didn’t dispute the major piece of the administration’s counter-argument, that security cooperation between the two allies is at an all time high — though he does try to attribute this to commitments made by President Bush (commitments, it goes without saying, Obama could have ignored but instead reaffirmed and strengthened).
Instead, Senor simply strings together a few offhand comments from administration officials that he argues make the Israel-U.S. relationship look vulnerable when viewed from Tehran. The overwhelming majority of these comments came from the mouth of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. There was the time in October 2011 when Panetta worried about Israel “isolating” itself in the diplomatic arena, and then in December when Panetta implored Israel to “get to the damn table.” There’s not much more to Senor’s argument. He mentioned Obama’s not having visited Israel yet, but as we reported here, George W. Bush (Senor’s former boss) went twice at the very end of his second term. His father, George H.W. Bush, never went. You know who else never visited Israel as president? Ronald Reagan. So maybe we can just retire this debating point.
But if Senor’s argument about the administration is really an argument about Panetta, the defense secretary’s words this morning at the AIPAC conference should really suffice to slam the door on this Obama anti-Israel trope the Romney folks are trying to develop.
Just take a look at some of Panetta’s statements:
President Barack Obama was more than half way through his address Sunday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee before he mentioned the issue of the hour: Iran. That may well be because public officials tend to leave the thorniest subjects to later in their speeches. But it struck me as an apt metaphor for American Jewish reaction to the president in this white-hot election year.
Here’s why. Obama devoted the first and largest portion of his Aipac speech to a robust defense of his administration’s policies toward Israel, essentially repeating the phrase he mastered in an interview with Atlantic magazine a few days earlier – that is, he’s got Israel’s back. Anyone who believes this argument will very likely believe the subsequent pledges he made about Iran, because they are logical, systematic, and hold up to the facts as presented.
And those American Jews (and their evangelical Christian counterparts) who don’t believe that this administration has been as staunch an ally of Israel and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as it should be will simply not believe Obama on Iran, either.
In the end, it’s a matter of trust. And politics.
It is still more than a week away, but AIPAC’s annual policy conference is already creating a buzz in the political world. Every year organizers promise this will be the biggest pro-Israel gathering ever, but this time around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has really outdone itself, with 13,000 participants expected to take part at the three-day parley opening on March 4. Headlining the event will be President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel’s president Shimon Peres and the Republican presidential candidates, not to mention congressional leaders and just about anyone who has anything to do with Israel, politics and policy.
But with success come a few headaches.
First, for Republican candidates. The AIPAC conference is taking place just before Super Tuesday on March 6, when ten states hold primary elections. So what is a candidate to do? Fly back to Washington and give up valuable campaigning time in the voting states? Or perhaps skip the AIPAC conference and focus on the voters? It is a tough decision that all three leading candidates (Ron Paul does not seem to be relevant for the AIPAC crowd) need to make. Speaking at the conference can make some political sense, since it is a great venue to show off pro-Israel credentials and to deliver some punches at the Obama administration. On the other hand, staying on the ground in the states that are voting the next day could be a sounder decision, given the high stakes involved. Newt Gingrich already decided to make the trip to Washington. No word yet from Romney and Santorum.