PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 1 (JTA) — Rarely in recent U.S. elections have a candidate’s views on Israel and the Middle East been a make-or-break issue for Jewish voters.
It’s generally a given these days that most candidates are pro-Israel, or at least they espouse the traditional pro-Israel slogans during the campaign — support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, a commitment to Israel’s security and a pledge to support a united Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish state.
At the same time, many Jewish voters must feel a certain comfort level on the Israel issue before they move on to other criteria by which to cast their votes.
Which perhaps explains in part why Republican Party leaders addressing Jewish delegate functions at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia this week emphasized what they see as Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s support for Israel and the party’s strong pro-Israel platform.
Republican leaders know that their presidential candidate has to overcome the legacy of his father, former President Bush, who — along with his secretary of state, James Baker — was viewed by many Jews as hostile to Israel.
They also know that many Jews are uncomfortable with some of the domestic positions being espoused by Bush, including his views on abortion and religion in public life.
So instead of focusing on economic and other public policy issues — issues that seem to attract Republican Jews to the party — most of the party leaders addressing Jewish events touted the Middle East-related planks in the party platform and, in several cases, criticized the Clinton administration for pressuring Israel to make difficult decisions without getting anything in return from the Palestinians.
“It is wrong” that at the Camp David summit, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat took, and “the United States never said anything,” Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, declared Sunday to hundreds of cheering supporters gathered at a Jewish community event co-sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of local federations.
Gingrich, who made the same remarks a few hours later at a “Road to Victory” gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, also took the Clinton administration to task for not yet implementing the U.S. law requiring that the U.S. Embassy in Israel be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert sounded similar themes at the AIPAC- UJC event, warning the Palestinians not to “back away from the peace table” and unilaterally declare statehood in September, as they have threatened to do.
“I would support an agreement that first and foremost guarantees the security of the State of Israel and promotes stability in the Middle East,” Hastert said.
For his part, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was defeated by Bush in the primaries and was greeted with a hero’s welcome during the convention, including at the AIPAC event, emphasized the importance of an undivided Jerusalem, but at the same time, seemed to back the idea of a compromise that would include a sharing of sovereignty with the Palestinians.
“It is difficult to imagine that a compromise can be found involving Jerusalem, but to ignore the possibility is to accept the inevitability of further conflict,” he said.
But he also said, “The United States should play no part in any agreement that is not consistent” with the premise that “Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel.”
Bush’s chief foreign policy adviser, Condoleeza Rice, was less specific about the future of Jerusalem.
Without mentioning a united Jerusalem, she said she hoped an agreement on Jerusalem could be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians that maintains the holy status of the city.
She also reiterated Bush’s position that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Rice, who was introduced to Bush through former Secretary of State George Shultz and, according to Shultz, is expected to travel to Israel for the first time in the next few weeks, briefed RJC leaders and members of AIPAC, which also heard from Bush’s other foreign advisers during the convention.
Speaking to the RJC on Tuesday, Rice said she did not think that the failed Camp David summit was a waste of time because the parties focused on difficult issues.
There has to be an agreement under which “both parties have to feel secure, particularly Israel,” said Rice, whom observers say would likely get a top foreign policy post in a Bush administration.
Bush backers credited the Texas governor himself with a strong commitment to Israel.
Mel Sembler, the national finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and an honorary chairman of the RJC, organized a trip to Israel in 1998 for Bush and his wife, Laura, under the auspices of the RJC.
Calling Bush “very vocal on Israel,” Sembler recalls being moved to tears when Bush, at Sembler’s request, read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount at the Sea of Galilee.
“He’s a deeply religious man, and I think that’s wonderful,” said Sembler, a developer in St. Petersburg, Fla., who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Australia.
Sembler and the RJC also took Dick Cheney, Bush’s choice for his running mate, to Israel in 1994.
Many delegates at the convention appeared convinced that Bush would be there for Israel.
“George Bush would have done better” at Camp David than President Clinton, said Phil Hellreich, a Republican delegate from Hawaii who served on the platform committee.
The Republicans would pursue peace because “it’s in the United States’ best interest,” not because they are courting the Jewish vote, Hellreich said.
Others, however, were skeptical.
“He still has to convince me” on Israel, said Lee Bender, a Philadelphia attorney who was not a delegate but attended several of the Jewish events.
It was clearly those like Bender the Bush backers were trying — and will keep trying — to persuade.