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Behind the Headlines: Republican Message to Jews is That Israel is Safer with Bush

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If the Republicans had a single message they wanted to communicate to Jews attending the party convention here this week, it was this: that a vote for George Bush in November would guarantee Israel’s security while a vote for Democrat Bill Clinton would place it in jeopardy.

The Jewish contingent at the convention may have been small, accounting for just 3 percent of the 2,210 delegates. But its importance to the party was evidenced by the luminaries who showed up at various receptions and briefings hosted by the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, and by the non-partisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Among the speakers were Vice President Dan Quayle, Republican National Committee Chairman Richard Bond and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the convention keynote speaker.

All of them made a point of painting Bush as the consummate foreign policy president and Clinton as untested and inexperienced. They argued that the ever-precarious fate of Israel should not be entrusted to such a novice.

Each pledged Bush would build upon his strong record of accomplishments to strengthen the U.S.-Israeli bond, emphasizing the recent loan guarantee deal agreed to by Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“George Bush has proved he’s got the resolve, he’s got the experience, and he has the courage to make decisions for our country and for the world. And quite frankly, Bill Clinton does not,” Bond said at an AIPAC reception at the Bayou Bend Museum of Americana.

‘AWESOME ACCOMPLISHMENTS’

The Republican chairman referred to Bush’s “awesome accomplishments” in presiding over the end of the Cold War, the liberation of Eastern Europe, the termination of the Warsaw Pact and the Persian Gulf War.

And he contrasted that with Clinton’s foreign policy experience, which he said was confined to having been a young clerk for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Bill Clinton thinks that qualifies him to become commander in chief and leader of the free world,” said Bond. “By that reasoning, my years of watching ‘M.A.S.H.’ reruns makes me qualified to be a field surgeon,” he said, referring to the popular television series about a U.S. Army medical unit in Korea.

That argument was selling in some quarters. George Klein, chairman of the National Jewish Coalition, framed it simply when he asked a lunch-time gathering organized by his group to consider how best to protect Israel’s security.

He said that in a contest between Bush, with his “international and strategic focus,” and Clinton, “who has no idea what it’s all about,” Bush is “the kind of president we need.”

“I don’t want to get into abortion and the other issues right now,” he made a point of adding.

Klein was referring to the party’s conservative “family values” platform, which includes a tough anti-abortion plank and which was ignored by speakers at Jewish events.

David Blumberg, a convention delegate who heads the Republican Party in Baltimore, was not at the luncheon but made the same case as Klein.

“Bush has a wealth of experience in foreign policy, compared to the Democrats, who have no experience at all in dealing with world problems,” he said.

“I don’t think Clinton would know how to deal with Israel,” he continued. “Bush might not always do the right thing, but he has an idea of what needs to be done. I have much more confidence in Bush, not only on Israel but anywhere.”

‘STOP BULLYING ISRAEL’

But an incident during Quayle’s speech before a group of AIPAC delegates served to highlight the Republicans’ continuing need to repair the serious strain in relations between the Bush administration and the Jewish community over recent U.S. policies toward Israel.

Quayle was ridiculing Clinton’s lack of foreign policy experience, saying “there is no comparison at all” between his record and that of the president, when he was interrupted by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a New York activist who is head of the Coalition of Jewish Concerns.

Weiss, who also led a protest against the administration’s Israel policies Sunday outside the Astrodome, where the convention is taking place, shouted out to Quayle: “You’ve been wonderful, but tell your boss to stop bullying Israel.”

Weiss was referring to Bush’s insistence that Israel stop building settlements in the territories in return for the loan guarantees, a proposition that the new and more flexible Labor Party government has little quarrel with.

Quayle, departing from his prepared text, acknowledged that U.S.-Israel relations “have not always been smooth.” But, pointing to the Middle East peace talks scheduled to resume next Monday in Washington, he said that the administration’s policies have produced results.

Insiders say Quayle’s public emphasis on Israel was calculated to offer a sharp contrast to the speech given to AIPAC by the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, at his party convention last month, which did not mention Israel once.

Weiss finally was ejected by the local police after he continued to interrupt the vice president’s speech. But his concerns are not unique.

RESENTMENT OVER LOANS DELAY

While Republican officials are pointing to the recent loan deal as a vindication of the administration’s policies, many Jews who voted for Bush in 1988 remain disaffected by the harsh treatment received by Israel and pro-Israel lobbyists.

Rosita Gaon, a Jewish Republican representative-at-large to the Texas legislature, said she is still angry about the conditions imposed on Israel to secure the loan guarantees.

“I don’t know if I’m voting for Bush because I don’t like (the administration’s) attitude toward Israel,” she said. “I resent very much that they didn’t grant the loans” for so long.

But veteran Jewish philanthropist Max Fisher, a confidant of the president’s, exhorted Jewish Republicans to close ranks behind Bush. He said Bush had apologized for the bad feeling he had stirred last September, when he criticized the pro-Israel lobby, and was genuinely sorry.

“He said he made a mistake,” Fisher said, “and we have an obligation to deliver that message.”

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