Obama confidante expected to lead major Jewish group

One of Barack Obama’s earliest Jewish backers is emerging as a front-runner to lead the U.S. Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella — the latest sign of efforts to strengthen ties with the president-elect and the incoming administration.

Multiple sources confirmed that Alan Solow, a prominent Chicago-area bankruptcy lawyer who also chairs the national Jewish Community Centers of America, was in contention to replace June Walker, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chairwoman, who died in June.

Harold Tanner, a former Presidents Conference chair, has been serving in an interim capacity but is not interested in another stint.

Solow, who declined to comment, is the natural front-runner, the sources said, in no small part because of his closeness to Obama. Solow has backed Obama since he first ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1996.

In 2004, when Obama was running for U.S. Senate and had emerged as a natural leader after his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Solow said that he saw in Obama the qualities of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He pointed to Obama’s ability to reach across ethnic divides.

“He has reached out to the Jewish community, and the Jewish community has reached out to him,” Solow said at the time.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Presidents Conference, declined to comment on the selection process. Others known to be seeking the post include Moishe Smith, the president of B’nai B’rith Inter-national; Stephen Wolnek, the president of Mercaz, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement; and Stanley Chesley, the president of the Jewish National Fund.

Solow’s selection would help heal what some Democrats and Jewish communal insiders describe as a rift between Obama’s team and the Presidents Conference. Relations were never smooth, partly because the conference all but embraced Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq; opposition to that war was Obama’s signature foreign policy during his campaign.

Matters worsened at several points during the campaign, notably when Hoenlein was quoted in Israel as worrying that Obama’s supporters might want to see the United States adopt less pro-Israel positions — Hoenlein said he was misquoted — and later in September when the Presidents Conference invited Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin to a rally protesting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmad-inejad’s speech to the United Nations. Dem-ocrats were upset that the Presidents Confer-ence failed to extend an invitation to Palin’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joe Biden.

The revelation of Solow’s candidacy came as Jewish groups scrambled to prepare themselves, and the new administration, for the role they will play come January.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is devoting much of its annual Saban Leadership Seminar, which will be held Dec. 20 to 23 in Washington, D.C., to teaching emerging pro-Israel leaders how to deal with a new administration. Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s former top Middle East envoy and a top adviser to Obama, is scheduled to headline a session called “Obama and the Middle East: What He’s Likely to Focus On.”

In addition, representatives of a range of Jewish organizations were to meet Dec. 18 for the first time as a collective with the Obama transition team. Several Jewish groups already have participated in individual meetings with the transition team, including on foreign policy, health care and the environment.

Jewish groups attending the Dec. 18 meeting were invited to bring policy papers, with a caveat: The transition team’s commitment to transparency means the papers will be posted on Change.gov.

Jewish officials said the level of outreach was a change from a Bush administration that tended to focus narrowly on two areas in its relations with the Jewish community: Israel and faith-based initiatives.

“They are reaching out to the Jewish community, and not just in one meeting,” said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are being included in the meetings on hunger, on hate crimes, on the environment … it’s really important because it shows that they are taking the Jewish community very seriously in terms of our policy work, they are not just saying ‘Let’s talk about Israel.’ “

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.