Rahm out; what’s the effect? Jewish officials say not much

Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, Nov. 10, 2009. Photo Credit: Robert A. Cumins / Jewish Federations of North America


Rahm Emanuel’s departure as White House chief of staff last week dominated the headlines, but failed to resonate nearly as loudly among Jewish political leaders, insiders said.

Despite Emanuel’s firm Jewish communal ties, his absence isn’t likely to alter the administration’s approach to the Middle East – or much else for that matter, according to Jewish political insiders in touch with the White House.

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With Emanuel exiting the White House to launch a mayoral campaign in Chicago, President Barack Obama has a deep bench of pro-Israel players and Middle East experts to tap into on issues critical to the Jewish community, observers noted.

“A lot of people like to think this Israeli-Palestinian policy has been Rahm Emanuel’s and it’s not. It’s Barack Obama’s,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton administration aide.

“He’s not [Iran policy chief] Dennis Ross or [senior National Security Council official] Dan Shapiro,” Rabinowitz added. “It’s not like Rahm has spent a lot of time” crafting the administration’s foreign policy positions. “There’s always somebody else.”

Noted William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s vice president for public policy and director of its Washington Office: “The buck stops at the desk of the president of the United States, so any staff change shouldn’t impact the relationship [Obama] has with the state of Israel or the Jewish community.”

In fact, some believe Emanuel’s role in molding the administration’s Middle East policies was grossly exaggerated.

“The amount of Israeli press on his involvement [in foreign policy decisions] is bizarre and stupid,” said one Democratic Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak on the record. “That’s not what his job was.”

And, domestically, said a senior Jewish community professional who regularly works with the White House, “Rahm is not the Jewish liaison – he’s the chief of staff,” which means his personal interactions with Jewish groups were limited.

“In some ways,” that professional added, Emanuel’s belief that he could effortlessly handle the Jewish community due to his deep connections has “been a detriment to the White House [because Emanuel’s] saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got that,’ but then he doesn’t.”

Yet, during times of greatest distress in the Middle East, Emanuel played a pivotal role for the administration, sources said.

During a tense flare-up between the Israeli and American administrations earlier this year, Emanuel reportedly worked to mollify the Netanyahu administration’s growing angst.

“Rahm became the channel through which the Prime Minister’s office could speak honestly” with the administration, explained one pro-Israel insider familiar with the relationship between the two governments.

That source went on to wonder “who could step forward in the White House to fill this role,” and noted that, on some level, “the prime minister’s office is losing what has become a reliable channel of forthright communication with the White House.”

Another Jewish political insider speculated on the other hand that Emanuel’s exit might silence some of the administration’s rumor-mongering critics.

“A lot of Jews in the U.S. and Israel think of Rahm Emanuel as being this … self-hating Jew, and, first of all, that’s unfair to him,” explained the communal leader. “But maybe with him out of the picture, there will be one less bogeyman for people to focus on.”

Although, Emanuel – a practicing Jew – has those critics, the reflexive affinity that American Jews feel for him is not to be ignored, sources said.

Although many administration officials, such as Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, “show a deep commitment to Israel and a knowledge of the Middle East, there’s a difference in hearing about it from a guy whose last name is ‘Donilon’ [versus] a guy whose first name is ‘Rahm,’ ” said one source, who asked not to be identified.

“People like to see someone who has a name like theirs and sounds like them,” said the Democratic Hill staffer quoted earlier. “It’s identity politics,” and it fosters a sense of “pride” among Jews that “someone like them is close to the issues.”

Others, however, seemed slightly more dismissive of Emanuel’s innate appeal to the Jewish community.

“That hasn’t always been of a great benefit to Israel,” noted one of the Jewish leaders previously quoted on background. “In an American government, a friend of Israel is more important a factor than whether they’re Jewish.”

Emanuel’s religion, in fact, already seems to be having a negative net impact on his bid to become Chicago’s next mayor.

According to the Chicago Tribune, some politically conservative Jews tend to blame Emanuel, the son of an Israeli doctor, for some of the Obama administration’s tensions with Israel, while Orthodox Jews quibbled with his decision to announce his resignation on Friday of last week, Simchat Torah.

Even liberal Jews, the paper reported, are “upset that Emanuel is associated with a White House that has had notable tensions with the Democratic Party left.”

Nevertheless, during his two years in the Obama administration, Emanuel was a deeply trusted confidant.

Selected early on from within the president’s inner circle, Emanuel appeared to have a particularly close and candid relationship with Obama.

“Rahm, on all issues, including issues concerning the Jewish community has been a sounding board for the president and he plays an excellent devil’s advocate,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, a close friend of Emanuel’s, who serves as the spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria.

Similarly, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, American Friends of Lubavitch’s Washington director, explained that “any way you slice it, the chief of staff is usually the first person to see the president in the West Wing in the morning and the last one to see him there at night, and therefore, having somebody with a positive disposition on issues important to the Jewish community is crucial.”

Plus, several Jewish observers noted that Emanuel has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish community’s organizational alphabet soup.

Said Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s president, in a statement to WJW: “Rahm has been an important pro-Israel voice at the White House and he is a close friend.”

Much also has been made of Emanuel’s shrewd political mentality and profanity-laden tirades.

Or, as one Jewish leader put it: “His modus operandus is like good harif spice – it gets the excitement and action and the job done, but it’s a little much when people have to eat it by the spoonful.”