In the run up to the 1996 presidential election, former Sen. Bob Dole, then
the Senate's Republican majority leader, discovered Israel on his way to the
GOP's presidential nomination.
Though he had not been known as an ardent advocate for the Jewish state, Dole
went all out to make new friends before his eventual defeat at the hands of
Bill Clinton. The monument to this effort is the legislation he sponsored that
mandated that the United States move its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to
Jerusalem. Still on the books though routinely flouted by both Clinton and his
successor, George W. Bush Dole's Jerusalem bill bears witness to the
lengths to which presidential wannabes will go to get Jewish money and votes.
Cynics can point to this transparent attempt to pander to pro-Israel
sentiment as proof of how pointless the process can be. And yet who can deny that the
ritual of appealing to the pro-Israel sentiments of voters (both Jewish and
non-Jewish) has a profound affect on America's Middle East policy? The mere act
of making such a promise, even one as meaningless as Dole's, makes it less
likely that Israel's foes will miscalculate and think they can drive a wedge
between Israel and America.
All of which brings us to an examination of the latest round of pandering:
this time the efforts of Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has
sewn up his party's presidential nomination.
CHANGING HIS MIND
Kerry is more familiar with Jewish voters than Dole. He also has a coterie of
influential Jewish supporters and financial backers, in addition to a lengthy
record of support for Israel. Yet even Kerry found himself tap dancing for a
group of Jewish leaders last week in the days before the New York primary,
trying to explain away a couple of damaging statements that opponents have been
circulating to undermine his candidacy.
One revolved around a Kerry speech to an Arab-American group last fall, in
which he said he opposed the security fence that Israel is building to protect
its citizens against Palestinian terrorists, calling it a "barrier to peace."
Kerry stepped in it again in December when during the course of a
foreign-policy address, he blasted the Bush administration's unwillingness to intervene
more forcefully in the Middle East peace process, and said that, if elected, he
would send a special envoy to the region. He went on to mention former
President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker as people he might
consider for the role, nominees that most Jews would consider a bipartisan
short list of those most hostile to the interests of the Jewish nation.
But when confronted on these points in New York, Kerry backpedaled furiously.
Demonstrating his well-known ability to come down on both sides of all issues
(what some call his "flexibility"), the candidate claimed to be a big
supporter of the fence. He also promised that his Mideast envoy would certainly be
someone far more acceptable to Israel than either Carter or Baker. Previous
statements were, Kerry's spinmasters said, just a misunderstanding.
Maybe so, but Kerry can expect that both flip-flops will be thrown in his
face by Bush supporters all the way to November. Others will cite a passage in
Kerry's 1997 book on foreign policy, The New War, in which he wrote that
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was a "role model" for other terrorists because of
his "transformation from outlaw to statesman." Of course, Kerry says he
doesn't believe that any more either.
All the same, it isn't likely this issue will have much of an impact on the
Jewish vote this year. Most Jews remain partisan Democrats, and Israel notw
ithstanding, share their fellow party members' deep antipathy to the president.
But even a small gain in the percentage of Jewish votes for Bush over the 18
percent he received in 2000 would make a crucial difference in battleground
states such as Florida.
So you can expect Republicans to emphasize Bush's support for Israel and the
war on terrorism for Jewish voters. In reply, Democrats will assert that Kerry
has a longer history of support for Jewish causes than Bush. They will also
keep wavering voters in line by linking Bush to conservative Christians, who
scare liberal Jews to death on domestic issues, even if most Evangelicals are
stronger supporters of Israel than some Jews.
SOME REAL DIFFERENCES
But the problem with the gotcha game that both sides play is that it leaves
little time to discuss the real differences between a possible Kerry presidency
and that of the Bush administration.
In the last four years, Bush's strong support of Israel and implacable
criticism of Arafat have resonated with backers of Israel. So, too, has his
insistence that democracy in the Arab world be a precondition for peace a position
that appalled Europeans and the American foreign-policy establishment.
In contrast, Kerry is a true believer in multilateral diplomacy. And while
Bush has shown himself to be more comfortable with Ariel Sharon and his
right-of-center Israeli government than any previous American president, Kerry enjoys
the company of Israelis like Geneva accord mastermind Yossi Beilin. On the
Middle East, a Kerry presidency is almost certain to feel like a continuation of
the Clinton administration.
On the other hand, Kerry would come in to office as a strong critic of the
Saudis, the funders of Islamic terror consistently appeased by Bush. And,
despite all the applause Bush has gotten for his snubs of Arafat and for the ouster
of Saddam Hussein, some right-wing Jews, such as Zionist Organization of
America head Morton Klein, damn him all the same for his support for a Palestinian
But instead of spending the next eight months bashing their opponents, Jewish
Democrats and Republicans would do us all a favor if they spent some of this
time pushing their own standard-bearers to clarify their positions.
Democrats should keep Kerry's feet to the fire on Israel, and push him to
draw appropriate conclusions from the failure of Oslo and Clinton's policies in
Republicans need to make it clear to the president that he, too, doesn't have
a blank check. For one thing, Bush needs to stop backing away from his demand
that Palestinians oust Arafat.
What we need during this campaign is more accountability from both candidates
on Middle East policy. What we're likely to get is just more spin and the
same old partisanship.