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The Bridge

Former Congressman Robert Wexler wants to make Mideast peace, but he doesn’t want to be ambassador to Israel

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Robert Wexler with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last year. (Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)

Last week, as President Barack Obama was in the Rose Garden announcing that he’d relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of command in Afghanistan, about 40 people were sitting in a windowless midtown Manhattan meeting room listening to a retired Israeli general, Uzi Dayan, lay out his assessment of the security risks to the Jewish state inherent in any two-state deal. The audience included representatives of the established Jewish groups, including the Union of Reform Judaism and the Zionist Organization of America, a few pro-Israel activists, and one unaccustomed special guest: Robert Wexler, an early Obama supporter who resigned his Florida congressional seat last fall to become head of a Middle East peace institute funded by the billionaire founder of Slim-Fast, S. Daniel Abraham.

Wexler, who arrived late, stood by himself through the hourlong presentation, leaning against a wall near the back of the room with his soft black leather Dell briefcase between his feet. At 49, he was at least a decade younger than most of the other men in attendance, though he sports similarly silvered hair, and he kept his hand pensively over his chin for much of the talk. Dayan expressed his opposition to the current U.S. effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations using 1967 borders as the basis for a future Palestinian state. During the question-and-answer session, Wexler raised his hand and asked, pointedly, “General Dayan, how could it be in any respect a smart strategy to treat in this fashion your most important ally?” Dayan looked surprised. “Rabbi Wexler,” he began, before someone at the front corrected him. “I’m not challenging the White House or the so-important friendship with the United States,” Dayan said. “I’m challenging how important borders are.”

Wexler may have been unfamiliar to the general, but others in the room knew exactly who he was. In his six months as president of Abraham’s Center for Middle East Peace, Wexler has adopted an unofficial role as ambassador to the organized American Jewish community. As a congressman, he managed to retain support from both J Street, the dovish two-year-old Israel lobby, and the more conservative AIPAC, which commended him earlier this year as “one of the stalwart leaders of the American-Israel alliance in Congress.” After last week’s luncheon, hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Wexler stayed behind for a quiet tête-à-tête with the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dore Gold, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first premiership a decade ago, and who addressed the lunch gathering along with Dayan.

In March 2007, Wexler endorsed Barack Obama, breaking not just with other Jewish Democrats in South Florida but with his own long history as an early and fervent supporter of the Clintons, starting in 1992. Today, he is frequently mentioned as a potential ambassador to Israel—a position currently filled by James Cunningham, a career diplomat who went to Tel Aviv in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration. “It’s a position he could have at the snap of his fingers,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who served under President Bill Clinton as a special envoy for Holocaust-era claims and is a special State Department adviser to Hillary Clinton on Holocaust issues. “He could do a world of good for the administration, because at the end of the day [the Israelis] have to have trust in the American administration, and there is no one better placed than Bob to make that argument.”

The visit to New York followed a high-profile dinner Wexler and Abraham hosted at Washington’s Newseum for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Washington in early June. The guest list included the billionaire publisher Mort Zuckerman and Lee Rosenberg, an Obama supporter who is currently the president of AIPAC, along with political heavyweights like Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, and Stephen Hadley, who held the job under George W. Bush, and his former deputy, Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle Eastern affairs under Bush. The center Wexler runs is “a meeting spot where people from all segments of the community can come together and hear reasonable points of view,” said J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami, who was also at the event.

Publicly, Wexler is probably best known for his 2006 appearance on Comedy Central’s satire show The Colbert Report, on which Stephen Colbert coaxed him into repeating the sentence: “I enjoy cocaine because it’s fun to do.” Wexler spent a dozen years representing Boca Raton, one of the most Jewish and most reliably Democratic districts in the House of Representatives. As a member of the influential Foreign Affairs committee, he was particularly active in establishing a congressional caucus on U.S.-Turkish relations and went out of his way to travel to places like Saudi Arabia and Syria, where, according to an account in Wexler’s autobiography, Fire-Breathing Liberal, President Bashar al-Assad gave him messages to carry to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“Serving in government is an extraordinary honor, whether it’s in Congress or in any other capacity, but there are other ways to participate in a meaningful way as well,” Wexler said in an interview in late June. We were in his Washington office, on the fifth floor of a building overlooking the colonnaded Navy Memorial plaza along Pennsylvania Ave., where he keeps the bronze plaque from the entrance to his old House office leaning against the windowsill. Framed photographs of him posing with various leaders—Netanyahu, Sharon, Obama, King Abdullah—compete for space with framed newspaper clippings from his Florida political career.

Wexler, who was in shirtsleeves, favors blue ties that match his eyes and tends to rap his fingertips on tabletops when he is particularly emphatic about a point he’s making. He refused to say whether he had been offered the ambassadorship, formally or informally. (The White House declined to comment for this story.) But Wexler has publicly, and repeatedly, said his decision to leave Congress was motivated in part by financial concerns—he has three teenage children—and acquaintances speculate that his hesitance about returning to government service, even as an ambassador, stems from the same pressures. (Members of Congress are paid $174,000 annually; Wexler declined to disclose his current salary, which is not reflected in the Center’s most recent financial filings.) Over the years, Wexler explained, “Danny would joke with me and ask when I was going to leave Congress and get a real job.” The jibe turned into a real prospect after Obama’s election invigorated Abraham about the prospects for reaching a peace agreement—an irony, he added, since Abraham, a longtime supporter of the Clintons, had initially been sharply critical of his decision to back Obama. Now he shuttles around on extra-diplomatic excursions—Israel and the West Bank, Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan—aboard Abraham’s private jet.

Abraham, an 85-year-old World War II veteran, founded the Center for Middle East Peace in 1989, with Wayne Owens, a Democratic congressman from Utah who had served on the foreign affairs and intelligence committees, at its helm. Together, the pair met with Yasser Arafat in 1989, in Tunisia, then an extraordinary step, and went on to cultivate relationships with leaders across the Middle East. “They would come see us and the national security adviser and occasionally the president to brief us on meetings they’d had with various Israeli and Arab leaders and give us ideas,” said Robert Malley, who served on the staff of the National Security Council and as a special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs in the Clinton Administration. He recalled that Abraham had called the White House from Israel with both Ehud Barak and Arafat on the line after the failure of negotiations at Camp David. Of Abraham’s center, Malley said, “It’s not going to change history, but in his position you can’t hope to do more than that—he has access and he can bring people together.”

Owens died unexpectedly in December 2002 after having a heart attack on the beach in Tel Aviv during a trip with Abraham, who subsequently wound down the center’s $14 million operation. Owens was deeply beloved in official Washington, but as a Mormon, he never had Wexler’s entree into the official world of American Jewry. Wexler, a Queens native who grew up in South Florida, where his father owned a deli, made his first trip to Israel on his honeymoon, after his wife, Laurie, said she didn’t like the idea of marrying someone who hadn’t been to the Jewish state. He was elected to Congress in 1996 after six years in the Florida State Senate and was drafted onto the Foreign Affairs committee by Lee Hamilton, a veteran Democratic congressman from Indiana who subsequently served on the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group. “He was a natural,” says Hamilton, who is currently president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “He’s always been very close to the Jewish community and a very strong advocate for the Democratic Party, and I think he’s played a hugely important role in bridging the gaps that sometimes arise between the two.”

Now Wexler’s task is not just to maintain open channels among the Americans, Israelis, and Arabs—it’s to continue applying additional glue to the relationship between the Obama Administration and the American Jewish community. “My understanding with Danny was that I had only one red line, or only one rule, and that is that we would work in coordination and consistent with the Obama Administration,” Wexler said. “I believe the course that President Obama is pursuing is compelling in terms of what is in the best interests of the state of Israel.” He echoed recent administration talking points about the closeness of the U.S.-Israeli military and intelligence relationships and added another example to counter claims of anything like a rift between Washington and Jerusalem: phone calls made by George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, to voting countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development this spring encouraging them to accept Israel as a member.

None of that, though, speaks to the fundamental anxiety increasingly pervasive in some Jewish quarters about where the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is heading. Last week, Wexler met with Ehud Barak during the Israeli defense minister’s visit to Washington; he has extended an invitation to host a gathering for Netanyahu when the prime minister is scheduled to be in town next week. But, like everyone, Wexler is looking ahead to the expiration of the settlement-construction freeze in September, and like everyone, he can’t predict whether or not the current proximity talks will lead to a resumption of direct, Camp David-style negotiations. “The plan is to create the dynamic in which the Israelis and the Palestinians can engage in direct negotiations. That’s the plan. It’s tedious, it’s painful, and for every two steps forward there’s one step back, but that’s the plan,” Wexler told me. He deflected the question of whether he anticipated a grand proposal from the Obama Administration, in the event that the proximity talks fail to progress. “I don’t think it makes any sense to foreshadow what might happen four months from now, or five months from now, should there not be direct negotiations,” he said. “Because I am confident and hopeful there will be.”

That optimism is a hallmark of the style Abraham and Owens established two decades ago, during the hopeful era of the Oslo accords. “They had more fire and determination than anyone else on the block,” Malley said. “And Wexler shares this attitude of, ‘We have a vision, it makes sense.’ ” Obama’s election revived Abraham’s resolve to fight for the establishment of a two-state deal, Wexler said. “I think he felt that coming off the eight years of the Bush Administration, because of the Intifada and because of the two wars, the opportunity for negotiating a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and an end to conflict was so remote, that the next two or three years were the best last opportunity for a two-state solution.”

Wexler said that Abbas, at the Newseum dinner, warned about the increasingly vocal campaign among Palestinians against continuing to pursue the two-state model. “People need to understand that while the two-state solution may seem difficult to attain—it’s riddled with uncertainty, it’s riddled with risks and painful compromises—but the alternative is not paradise. It’s not some golden status quo,” Wexler went on. “The alternative is the one-state solution, and the one-state solution will amount to a state that is no longer Jewish. And I for one am not for that.”

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Dani Levi says:

Great read.

MaxS says:

I love all these guys who are coming here to make peace for us. Who are we going to make peace with? The Hammas who openly declare that they want to destroy us or Fatah who are bunch of incompetent corrupt boobs lead by a prime minister who wrote his PhD thesis explaining why the holocaust never occurred. It’s amazing how people can avoid facing reality.

esthermiriam says:

Maybe if there were a few gals in this gallery there might be some breakthroughs!

sara says:

Robert Wexler is an anti-Israel Jew. He is part of the reason I left the Democrat party. He and his fellow J Streeters have done more damage than generation of Jewish politicians in American history. The Democrat party now stands with a president who has done more damage than any President in American history. Carter included. Wexler is either very naive or very ambitious. Either way, as a proud Jew who is now a proud Conservative I urge other American Jews to wake up.

Jack Glasner says:

Wexler is an Obama men…and cannot be trusted…. Jg

This is a well written profile of the former Congressman, and it is interesting to learn more about Mr. Wexler’s views on Israel and the peace process. I can understand why Mr. Wexler wants to keep the work of his organization in line with the policies of the Obama Administration, but at the same time I worry that these policies have at times placed considerable strain on US-Israel relations, with little tangible benefit. I think he is wise to demure when asked whether or not President Obama will be able to make a significant breakthrough in the conflict, because practically speaking the present US administration has a whole host of other foreign and domestic concerns which are also vying for the administration’s attention, energy and resources. It would be interesting to know more about his thoughts on the broader political picture in the Middle East, and how he views the role of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the peace talks

Eric Weis says:

To the last two posters…please, s’licha, read Wexler’s final quote in this piece. Put aside your political allegiances, your party affiliations, your Obama hatred and ask yourself one question. Can Eretz Yisrael, a homeland for Am Yisrael, survive in a one-state solution? The answer is obvious, unless demographics change drastically in this generation. If you have 10 children, and do not live in Israel…go now! My daughter is making aliyah.

Paul says:

I believe in a two state solution but the belief that without it demographics will place Israel in jeopardy is not true as we are not contemplating that the West Bank and Gaza be made part of Israel.More of a problem is the high birth rate of Israeli Arabs and the low birth rate of secular Jews.A two state solution cannot be attained unless as part of the settlement Israel has safe and secure borders.
I am leary of Wexler as an Mid-East negotiator as he is too close to J Street who wants Israel to make all of the concessions without asking the Palestinians, West Bank & Gaza ,to make any real concessions, many that can be made without any cost.For starters recognizing Israel and changing their educational system that teaches their children to hate Israelis and Jews.

An excellent profile of Wexler. He was always a promising politician. He is giving his all to pursuing peace in Israel. Whichever path he chooses, whether it is staying with Middle East peace institute or becoming ambassador, he will be an invaluable asset to the peace process. We need more like Wexler.

Wexler is an idiot pure and simple. Maybe everyone else forgets but this so called brilliant man didn’t know he was supposed to keep a residence in the district that he represented and instead used his father-in-laws address as his primary place of residence. When caught he went and rented an apartment in his own name.What do you think the local papers in Boca would have done to a Republican if they committed such a crime?Instead they gave him a whoopsidaisy.

Wexler is an apologist for the Obama administraton and he along with the likes of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz are going to be responsible for the next Middle East war. They have chosen Obama’s vision of the world which is weakened democratic allies inexchange for embracing the tyrants of the world. Someone needs to give Wexler a history book to show him how that “appeasement thingie” really turns out, but I am not sure he can read.

Boca Resident says:

Wexler is a disgrace and traitor to those he represented in his congressional district and the Jewish people.

Bottom line- he initiated Jewish mainstream support of Obama and most organizations foolishly and negligently went along for the dangerous ride.
HE AND HIS COLLEAGUES CANNOT BE TRUSTED!

And, unless his “annointed” successor, Ted Deutch, distances himself from Wexler, Obama and company, he too should be viewed in a similar light.

Martin Gray says:

I voted against Robert Wexler when he ran for Congress.

He’s an apologist for the Obama administration, and his ambitions fuel his actions. Nothing more than an opportunist, Wexler continues to sell his sordid goods to the American Jewish community. Well Ed Koch finally woke up about Obama, I pray the majority of American Jews do as well.

steve says:

This is a well-written article..of course it is as Allison Hoffman wrote it! I don’t know if she intended to, but I took from it the raw ambition of Wexler, and his dedication more to Obama than the Jewish people. He is like Rahm Emanuel lite. From the top, the borders Obama wants to impose are more important than safe borders. And he makes a pretty good salary from this foundation whose founder’s only conditions are support Obama!

Moshe says:

That’s the problem with Israeli leaders pandering to US Jewish institutions. The result is, as it has always been, that the US Jews think their ideas & policies should BE Israel’s ideas and policies.
Imagine Berlesconi coming to Manhattan to “Sell” Italy’s foreign policy to Italian-Americans. Hasn’t Israel matured enough to go forward with natural friends and not be coerced by money or greed from ‘concerned’ supporters?

David Zion says:

When will the Oslo Jews finally admit they were and are wrong – let alone ask kapara for the thousands of Jews who were killed and wounded as a result of their hubris in thinking they could solve Israel’s problems and pushing the Oslo process? Just as everyone wants to be skinny, every one wants peace but that does not make Abraham’s an expert in either – just marketing. He used his billions to play on people’s fears and financed Yosi Balin and other post-Israel Jews. Israel has tried making concessions and crossed every red line – the palestinians have not made one compromise – not one – their charter calling for the destruction of Israel has not even been changed. At least they make their intentions pretty obvious. But people are blind. If concessions do not persuade the Palestinians to make peace – and they clearly have not (perhaps because they assume there will always be more)- perhaps a cost should be imposed upon them for not making peace – i.e. a smaller country the longer they wait.

AbeBird says:

I don’t believe the democrats even if they are Jewish. How can they hate America so much until they chose to vote for Obamba?

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Robert Wexler joined Kucinich in calling for the impeachment of Cheney as well as Bush. These latter officials were rabid Iran war-baiters, at the same time as they were concocting their illegitimate, but ultimately successful fraud to invade Iran and Afghanistan for oil and minerals for their cronies’ companies. Millions of innocent lives later, we see the once admirable Wexler cavorting with none but the fear-mongering, deceptive, war-mongerer, Bibi himself. In Jan. 2012, James Clapper, the head of the of the US Intelligence Community, as well as Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA

Robert Wexler joined Kucinich in calling for the impeachment of Cheney as well as Bush. These latter officials were rabid Iran war-baiters, at the same time as they were concocting their illegitimate, but ultimately successful fraud to invade Iran and Afghanistan for oil and minerals for their cronies’ companies. Millions of innocent lives later, we see the once admirable Wexler cavorting with none but the fear-mongering, deceptive, war-mongerer, Bibi himself. In Jan. 2012, James Clapper, the head of the of the US Intelligence Community, as well as Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA reiterated to the Senate that Iran not only does not possess the capacity to develop nuclear weaponry at current, but that, in their estimation, they are not intending to do so. This, while Israel possesses between 300 and 600 nuclear warheads, and is not a signatory to several key nuclear anti-proliferation agreements, though Iran is a signatory to all significant anti-nuclear agreements. Bibi is no better than heinous war criminals like Bush, Cheney and Kissinger. For shame, Mr. Wexler, for shame!

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The Bridge

Former Congressman Robert Wexler wants to make Mideast peace, but he doesn’t want to be ambassador to Israel

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