WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (JTA) — A day before they were to square off in a New Hampshire debate, the six Republican candidates jostling for their party’s presidential nomination intensified their courtship of Jewish voters.
During Wednesday’s daylong event marking the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Jewish Coalition, the candidates delivered speeches to Jewish GOP activists and took some questions from the crowd.
After politely listening to the five candidates trailing Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the polls, a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred Jewish activists and politicos gave the GOP front-runner a rousing reception and surrounded him after he spoke, shaking hands and taking pictures with the candidate.
Max Fisher, the scion of Jewish Republicans, even introduced Bush as the next president of the United States to a round of applause.
Several of those in the crowd said Bush delivered his typical stump speech, adding a few references to Israel.
He spoke of his brand of “compassionate conservatism” — not wanting people to feel left behind and rallying people of faith into “armies of compassion” to help those less fortunate — and listed tax cut proposals that he had unveiled in Iowa earlier in the day.
The crowd liked Bush’s proposal to give scholarships, or vouchers, to students in failing schools, but he did not discuss other hot-button issues, like abortion and school prayer.
On the Middle East, Bush said “a safe and secure Israel is in our national strategic interests” and added that a final peace deal has to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians.
“A lasting peace will not happen if our government tries to make Israel conform to our vision of national security,” Bush said, adding that a peace deal should not pushed “just for standing in the polls.”
Bush said his trip to Israel and the West Bank last year made it clear to him that Israel should have anti-ballistic missile defense systems, such as the joint Israeli-U.S. Arrow system.
Unlike four of his opponents, Bush did not mention his view on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Malcolm Forbes and Gary Bauer all said they would move the embassy.
The Clinton administration has resisted the move, saying it would damage the peace process because the issue of Jerusalem needs to be worked out in final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
A Bush spokesman told JTA that the governor supports moving the embassy and Bush has said in the past that he “would start the process as soon as I got sworn in.”
Bauer, a conservative activist and former Reagan administration official, said he would be willing to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital.
The United States already owns a plot of land in the western part of Jerusalem to build an embassy.
Israel says a united Jerusalem will remain the capital of the Jewish state.
Bush did not join most of the candidates in criticizing first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The crowd applauded when they attacked her for not immediately denouncing charges by Suha Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president’s wife, that Israeli troops used poisonous gas against Palestinians.
McCain, who was warmly introduced by former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, said he would “tend with care” the U.S.-Israel relationship and would “participate in the Middle East peace process only in pursuit of genuine peace and not some means to embellish my profile as a statesman.”
The comment was a jab at President Clinton, who is seen as trying to secure his legacy by helping to secure a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians before he leaves office in 2000.
“I would never ask the Israelis to sign on to any peace agreement that endangers the lives of Israel for a false promise of peace,” he said, adding that he “would never ask them to sacrifice tangible land in exchange for intangible promises” and would not ask Israel to sign a final peace deal until all Palestinian commitments have been met.
McCain, who is running neck and neck with Bush in New Hampshire, is a distant second in national polls.
Hatch also sounded the theme that it was up to Israel to determine the “pace and modalities of the peace process” and raised concerns that Clinton was pressing the peace process too aggressively.
“I am sick and tired of the U.S. meddling on the part of a presidential administration seeking to build for itself a self-serving legacy on which the Israelis have to bet their lives,” he said to applause.
Hatch, a devout Mormon who at one point said Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Utah — he called the flub a Freudian slip — said he understood the persecution Jews have suffered and said no president would care more about Israel than him.
Hatch and McCain criticized the Clinton administration on international affairs, with McCain charging that it has “too often pursued a feckless, photo-op foreign policy.”
Alan Keyes, a radio talk show host and former State Department official during the Reagan administration, focused mostly on what he sees as the moral decay of the country, saying he would not attack the Clinton administration on economic or foreign policy because there are no major crises in those areas.
Forbes, the magazine publisher, said Israel’s creation and continued existence is a “profound moral triumph” and said he would support the continued development and deployment of the joint Arrow missile defense program.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who spoke during lunch and was introduced as “Sen. Giuliani,” detailed the transformation the city has undergone during his watch and made several references to how first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — his likely opponent for the open Senate seat — is not a real New Yorker.
Giuliani said the administration should move the U.S. Embassy now.
He also said pressure should not be placed on Israel to make concessions.