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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

Allison Hoffman
July 01, 2010
Robert Wexler with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last year.(Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)
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.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.