WASHINGTON (Apr. 28)
Wrapping himself in the blue and white of Israel’s flag, Vice President Al Gore has launched his campaign for American Jewish support.
From the dais at Jewish conferences to a Jewish day school in Washington — and now Israel itself — Gore has begun to step out from behind President Clinton as his unofficial presidential campaign reaches out to one of the Democrats’ core constituencies.
Taking a page out of the traditional Democratic political playbook, Gore has worked for years to try to shore up support in the Jewish community to pre-empt any challenger’s efforts and repeat Clinton’s record success with the Jewish vote and its political money.
His efforts peaked this week, when Gore visited Israel as the United States’ official representative to the Jewish state’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
But the trip comes as the Clinton administration’s peace process team has set up a full-court press in the region to put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat back on the path toward peace.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has scheduled separate sessions with Netanyahu and Arafat next week in London. Depending on the result of Monday’s meetings, Albright may bring Arafat and Netanyahu together for the first time since last October.
With those meetings and Gore’s presidential campaign in mind, his Israel itinerary was expanded from a largely ceremonial visit to include presidential- style statesmanship. Gore’s scheduled meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat would represent the vice president’s most public solo venture into the quagmire of Middle East peacemaking.
Gore’s visit comes at the end of a week during which U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, joined by the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Martin Indyk, held a round of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials — and Netanyahu met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo – - in preparation for the May 4 meetings in London.
When asked about Gore’s role in the Clinton administration’s buildup to the London talks, a senior State Department official said Gore’s scheduled sessions with Netanyahu and Arafat are “an important piece” of their efforts and that Gore will “offer his judgments.”
Although Gore has been involved in virtually all of the high-level White House meetings with Middle East leaders — as well as the internal policy sessions – - he has until now remained in the background.
With Israel and the United States disagreeing over the size of the next Israeli redeployment in the West Bank, some Democratic Party activists voiced concern that Gore could run into trouble.
Netanyahu has accused the Clinton administration of endangering Israel’s security by suggesting that Israel transfer an additional 13 percent of West Bank land to the Palestinian Authority in a further redeployment. Israel maintains that at most it can hand over 9 percent, while the Palestinians have accepted the American framework.
Gore will now for the first time become identified with a policy of “pressing Israel to take risks with its security,” said Morrie Amitay, a Democrat and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.
“Gore may be allying himself with a crisis or disaster. It’s certainly taken the bloom off of his rose,” said Amitay a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
Indeed, Republicans are licking their chops at being able to attack Gore from the right on Israel.
“The Clinton administration of today is not by any stretch of the imagination the same administration of `Shalom Chaver’ fame,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, referring to the close relationship between Clinton and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“If Gore wants to ultimately run in 2000 on the Clinton administration’s record on Israel, more power to him,” said Brooks, who believes that voters will come to see the White House as shifting from a medintor’s role to one of pressuring Israel.
But it is Gore’s longtime record of support for Israel — from his days as a member of Tennessee’s congressional delegation to the Senate and now the White House — that many political operatives say gives Gore a unique voice in the debate.
“Who has more credibility than he to go to Israel at this moment of high drama” in the history of the modern state of Israel and in the peace process, said Steve Grossman, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
In an interview after a White House ceremony this week honoring Israel’s 50th anniversary, Grossman confidently predicted that Gore will “continue to earn the respect and admiration of the American Jewish people.”
In fact, some American Jewish leaders were privately urging Netanyahu to give Gore a diplomatic victory during their meetings this week.
Netanyahu is also looking for a signal from Gore, according to a senior Israeli official in Washington.
“There’s always a need for confidence building and right now Israel needs some confidence building, too,” he said.
And this is where Gore’s increased visibility may come in handy, many activists said.
“There’s a chemistry between Gore and Netanyahu that dates back to the early 1990s,” said one Jewish official.
“It would be an overstatement to call it a back channel but they’ve certainly had conversations,” he added.
With Gore’s trip being viewed by many activists through the political lens, the White House sidestepped a potential landmine this week when they decided to shift a planned Gore meeting with Arafat.
Wanting to inject Gore into the peacemaking role, his staff considered an Arafat meeting on Friday, the second day of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations, which Palestinians refer to as the “catastrophe.”
With Palestinians planning to hold anti-Israel demonstrations outside the Gore- Arafat meeting and with Israeli and Jewish officials expressing opposition to the timing of the meeting, Gore’s staff ultimately scheduled a return trip on Saturday from Saudi Arabia to Israel so the vice president could meet with Arafat in the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah in the West Bank. Gore will continue on to Egypt before returning to Washington after the weekend.
With the controversy diffused, Gore was able to concentrate on celebrating Israel’s milestone.
Last Friday, at his request, Gore met with students at a Jewish day school in Washington — and he previewed the message to the Israelis in a speech at this week’s White House ceremony honoring Israel.
“Our ties are far deeper, forged by an iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security and well-being, to combating terrorism, to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and to achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace with security,” Gore said.