While Lieberman Hasn’t Declared, He’s Already in Middle East Quagmire

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, some asked if a Catholic candidate would be beholden to the Catholic Church and the pope.

Lieberman, who was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000, would be the first Jewish candidate with a viable shot at the White House.

But while it has become routine for presidential candidates to express support for Israel, analysts say Lieberman may need to measure his comments carefully to avoid accusations that he is a pawn of Jewish interests.

To win the confidence and support of some voters, Lieberman, an observant Jew, will need to prove that he would be serving the United States, not Israel, analysts say.

When Lieberman toured the Middle East late last month, he still wasn’t a candidate for president. Yet he was more than just another visiting politician.

While his trip was intended, in part, to meet with American troops in the region, Lieberman used the visit to take a stand on Mideast issues.

On several occasions, he empathized with the plight of the Palestinians, and expressed his support for Arab efforts to halt Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“There’s strong support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people for independent statehood,” Lieberman told reporters in Ramallah. “The question is whether there will be sufficient leadership here and in the world to bring this about sooner than later.”

He also expressed support for a Saudi Arabian initiative that offers the prospect of peace with the Arab world if Israel gives up all the land it won in the 1967 Six-Day War, among other conditions. Israel and many American Jewish leaders oppose a full withdrawal, saying it would jeopardize Israel’s security.

Lieberman has been a consistently strong supporter of Israel, sponsoring last spring’s congressional resolution of solidarity with the Jewish state. He also has been a proponent of U.S. engagement to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Some American Jewish leaders therefore were shocked by Lieberman’s recent comments. The leaders say the community now sees him differently, as another politician who will say whatever is needed to get elected.

“There’s a lot of concern,” said one senior Jewish leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is a real sense I get from people that he is flip-flopping and saying what is convenient.”

Lieberman’s aides say the senator was just repeating sentiments he has expressed in the past. Because he is not officially a presidential candidate, his comments should not be seen in a political light, the aides say.

But to those who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lieberman sent a clear signal that he would offer independent views on the Middle East, free of obligations to any group.

“The way a pro-Israel and Jewish candidate runs for president is by demonstrating that he’s fair,” said M. J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum. “The amount of compassion he demonstrated in his trip toward the Palestinians and their suffering will be unique to Lieberman.”

No one knows for sure how frequently Lieberman would address the Middle East on the campaign trail. Analysts generally view the issue in one of two ways.

Some argue that Lieberman will speak only rarely about Israel, eager to avoid the perception that his religious beliefs dictate his perspective on world affairs. Instead, he will focus his foreign policy addresses on Iraq and the war against terrorism, issues on which he is seen as hawkish for a Democratic legislator.

Others argue, however, that Democratic presidential hopefuls will see Lieberman as the standard-bearer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Lieberman expresses sympathy for the Palestinians, it will be easier for others to do the same, according to this view.

If Lieberman does emerge as a leader on Middle East issues, analysts say, he may be tempted to address the topic more frequently.

“He’s seen in a different light than others,” the Jewish leader said. “When he speaks, other people take notice of it, and it is seen as representative of the community.”

Rosenberg said Lieberman is the only candidate who can affect Mideast policy on the campaign trail.

“He has special standing. He can do more on the Middle East than a generic, non-Jewish candidate,” Rosenberg said. “Of all the people running now, he is the person who can do most for the future of the Middle East peace process.”

That’s precisely what concerns many Jewish leaders, who were not heartened by Lieberman’s comments last week.

Certainly, the Middle East could be a larger topic in the 2004 campaign than when Lieberman ran for vice president in 2000.

The Palestinian intifada began just six weeks before the 2000 election, and hope for peace still remained. But that hope has faded, and increased violence — coupled with possible U.S. military action against Iraq and the continued threat of terrorism against the United States — likely will make the Middle East a key campaign issue this time around.

By moderating his support of Israel, analysts say Lieberman could gain two things: In addition to showing voters his independence, he could build sources of support outside his natural base in the American Jewish community.

And Lieberman has little fear of alienating American Jews, many of whom are excited about the prospect of a fellow Jew in the White House.

Yet the first stage of the road to the White House focuses primarily on raising money, and Lieberman’s positions on the Middle East could affect his war chest. Lieberman therefore may need to express pro-Israel leanings initially, in order to tap Jewish political donations, and then moderate his rhetoric later.

Most of Lieberman’s Democratic rivals are seen as strong supporters of Israel, with congressional voting records to back it up.

The only contender without a record on the Middle East, outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, recently returned from the region, where he pledged support for U.S. loan guarantees to Israel. He also has recruited as an adviser Steve Grossman, a former national chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

In any case, analysts say, the 2004 election will turn on many issues beside the Middle East, and Lieberman’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aren’t likely to make or break his candidacy. “The Middle East is not an issue that people, other than Jews, vote on,” one Jewish political operative said.

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