WASHINGTON — Leading Democrats, including Senator Obama of Illinois, are distancing themselves from an essay published this week by one of their party's leading financiers that called for the Democratic Party to "liberate" itself from the influence of the pro-Israel lobby.
The article, by George Soros, published in the New York Review of Books, asserts that America should pressure Israel to negotiate with the Hamas-led unity government in the Palestinian territories regardless of whether Hamas recognizes the right of the Jewish state to exist. Mr. Soros goes on to say that one reason America has not embraced this policy is because of the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Yesterday, Mr. Obama's presidential campaign issued a dissent from the Hungarian-born billionaire's assessment. "Mr. Soros is entitled to his opinions," a campaign spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said. "But on this issue he and Senator Obama disagree. The U.S. and our allies are right to insist that Hamas — a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel's destruction — meet very basic conditions before being treated as a legitimate actor. AIPAC is one of many voices that share this view."
The Soros article puts Democrats in the awkward position of choosing between Mr. Soros, a major funder of their causes, and the pro-Israel lobby, whose members are also active in campaign fund-raising. Pressed by The New York Sun, some Democrats aired their differences with Mr. Soros.
Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat of Florida who sent out an e-mail to Jewish supporters in his home state last week vouching for Mr. Obama's pro-Israel bona fides, said he too rejected Mr. Soros's comments. "Senator Obama says until the Palestinian government fulfills all three of the quartet requirements, the United States should not and would not recognize the Palestinian government. Senator Obama is clear, Mr. Soros appears to have a different position," Mr. Wexler said. "I agree with Senator Obama and have felt that way for a long time."
Mr. Wexler also took issue with Mr. Soros's view that Aipac was a major reason why the Bush administration would not recognize the new Palestinian unity government. "I have never met him, he's a very substantial figure in the country," Mr. Wexler said of Mr. Soros. "I think his views are obviously the views of a prominent man. I respectfully disagree with him."
A Democratic congressman from New York who has endorsed Senator Clinton, a Democrat from New York, yesterday was tougher in his assessment of the new Soros article. "He is obviously very self absorbed. … I am trying to be kind, but he doesn't leave any room for kindness," Rep. Eliot Engel said in a phone interview Monday.
Regarding Mr. Soros's claim that Aipac drives American foreign policy, Mr. Engel said, "It's a myth and lie about Aipac's supposed stranglehold on the Congress, it's just nonsense. He went on to say, "I don't think Mr. Soros will sway the Democratic Party one iota."
Other prominent Democrats yesterday also differed with Mr. Soros. A vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Susan Turnbull, said in an phone interview, "My view is the problem here is George Bush, Mr. Soros has made that clear and at that point I agree with him. I am not going to say that the problem is Aipac. I don't necessarily agree with him on that." She added, "There are a lot of reasons why we are in the state we are in. I don't think that blaming it on one lobbying organization, which is one aspect of the Jewish community, is the be-all or end-all to the problem. The problem is not with Aipac, but with President Bush."
A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, Amaya Smith, declined to comment.
At one point in his essay, in a section discussing how the pro-Israel lobby "has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism," Mr. Soros recalls the fate of Howard Dean's campaign for the presidency. "When Howard Dean called for an evenhanded policy toward Israel in 2004, his chances of getting the nomination were badly damaged (although it was his attempt, after his defeat in Iowa, to shout above the crowd that sealed his fate)," Mr. Soros wrote. Dr. Dean is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The chairman of the Dean campaign, Steve Grossman, yesterday respectfully disagreed. "While Howard's public statements about Israel certainly cost him support in the pro-Israel community, I believe his anti-war positions continued to attract a broad cross section of support from the Jewish community. No one that I know ascribes Howard's defeat in 2004 to his public statements about Israel, even though I'll acknowledge that he lost support among some pro-Israel activists as a result."
Mr. Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and past president of Aipac, said he recognized and respected Mr. Soros' commitment to "progressive American values," and his "investment in political change in America." But Mr. Grossman also said, "I reject out of hand Soros's charges directed toward Aipac."