When it comes to Israel, it’s hard to read presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
Dole, the Senate majority leader who is currently leading the campaign to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has done a 180-degree turn on this and other issues related to the Jewish state in recent months.
Is he pandering to the Jewish community? It depends who you ask.
Dole unveiled his Jerusalem legislation last week at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
Since then, he has unabashedly targeted American Jews to publicize his proposal.
A press release from Dole’s campaign headquarters boasts the headline: “American Jewish leaders praise Dole” for his initiative to move the embassy.
The campaign is offering a photo of Dole “discussing the Jerusalem legislation” with former AIPAC President Robert Asher and veteran Jewish leader Max Fisher, both avid Dole supporters.
Many Jews who do not identify themselves as Dole supporters cheered when the senator announced his candidacy, hoping his run for the presidency would engender more pro-Israel statements coming from the Senate majority leader’s office.
The embassy plan, which would require construction to begin on the Jerusalem site next year and an official move in 1999, marks a significant shift for the senator.
In 1990, Dole argued that the United States should not move its embassy and that Israel took eastern Jerusalem “in effect, by force.”
The status of Jerusalem is “better left to negotiation among the parties involved,” Dole said on the Senate floor as he withdrew his support for a Senate bill that recognized Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
He also demanded the repeal of a 1990 Senate resolution acknowledging that Jerusalem “is and should remain the capital of Israel.”
Dole now argues that much has changed since then.
The Cold War is over and Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan and has signed the Declaration of Principles with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“The peace process has made great strides, and our commitment to that process is unchallengeable,” he said at the AIPAC dinner.
Although cheered by his supporters, his latest remarks have not silenced his critics.
Dole’s “willingness to leverage the peace process to gain political points is shocking and appalling,” said Monte Friedkin, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
“This is nothing but a cynical ploy by Dole, Gingrich and others on the right,” Friedkin said.
However, Dole supporters argue that the effort is bipartisan and not aimed at getting Jewish support.
“Bob Dole is a consensus builder and only acts when there is an unmistakable consensus,” said Fisher, who is Dole’s national finance chairman.
Fisher pointed out that seven of the 26 co-sponsors of Dole’s bill are Democrats.
Supporters say Dole underwent a genuine change of heart from 1990.
“Bob Dole has consistently been pro-Israel and always believed the U.S. Embassy belonged in Jerusalem. It was only a question of when,” an aide to the senator said.
Dole’s record speaks for itself, the aid said.
“Why are we looking a gift horse in the month?” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, the Republican Jewish organization.
“It’s not in our interests to accuse anyone of pandering or question their motives. We should appreciate this,” he said.
But supporters and detractors alike acknowledge that Dole has not always been in the pro-Israel camp.
In part because he was frustrated with the lack of Jewish support during his 1980 and 1988 bids for the Republican nomination for president, Dole flirted with an anti-Israel agenda in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Dole was definitely dissatisfied with the amount of Jewish support he got in 1988,” said Morris Amitay, treasurer of Washington PAC, one of the largest of the pro-Israel political action committees.
As for Dole’s change of heart, Amitay said, “While I believe in redemption, coincidentally he seems to be getting an awful lot of (financial) support from the Jewish community.”
He noted that a substantial number of big Jewish donors are supporting Dole’s campaign.
Although Dole has consistently voted for foreign aid, Dole is widely remembered in the Jewish community for advocating a 5 percent cut in Israel’s $3 billion package in 1990.
Under fire for his proposal, Dole at the time labeled Israeli opposition to the move as “selfishness.”
Ironically, when Dole called for a cut in Israel’s aid, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R- Ga.), now the Speaker of the House, jointed three colleagues in a scathing letter to Dole, declaring “our unwavering commitment to Israel.”
Dole fired back: “The leaders of the pro-Israel lobby are shortsighted and selfish in their zealous effort to protect Israel’s aid level at any cost.”
“Unfortunately, some people seem to think that if you disagree with a single policy or practice of the Israeli government, or criticize anyone who lobbies on behalf of Israel, you should be characterized as `anti-Israel.’ That is bunk,” Dole wrote.
Evidence that time heals all wounds: It was Gingrich who sponsored Dole’s Jerusalem legislation in the House last week.
Dole also blamed Israel for the killing of a U.S. intelligence officer by Arab terrorists in Lebanon, arguing on the Senate floor that “perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis would be refreshing.”
In 1989, pro-Iranian terrorists said they killed Lt. Col. William Higgins, a member of the international peacekeeping force in Lebanon, in retaliation for Israeli commandos kidnapping Muslim cleric Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid.
And Dole took an early stance against providing $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to assist the Jewish state in resettling refugees from the former Soviet Union.
In the midst of the controversial debate on the issue in 1991, Dole said on NBC’s “Meet the Press:” “Now, we have homeless in America, we have homeless veterans in America, and they’re wondering, `Why don’t we get the same treatment?'”
In the end, Dole supported the guarantees.