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Dean dogged by Israel claims

BURLINGTON, Vt., Dec. 30 (JTA) — An e-mail smear campaign distorting Howard Dean’s positions on Israel, coupled with the candidate’s genuine gaffes, has his staff working overtime to persuade Jewish voters that he is committed to Israel. “Even-handed is not a way anyone fairly describes Howard Dean,” said Stu Brody, chairman of the Democratic Rural Conference in New York and a former liaison between the Vermont governor and Jewish leaders. “His commitment to Israel is as strong as anyone’s.” The former Vermont governor’s now famous comment that he would support an “even-handed” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led more than a few Jewish community leaders to fret that Dean would push Israel to make risky concessions for peace. The e-mail campaign this fall — denounced by the Anti-Defamation League as a distortion of Dean’s record — accuses Dean of having “promised” to “no longer support Israel the way it has in the past under both Democratic and Republican presidents.” “In his own words, he will insist that the United States be ‘even handed,’ ” said the unsigned e-mail. “I urge you that if you have any love for America and Israel you should not and cannot vote for Howard Dean for the office of president.” The e-mails have had an effect, and national Jewish organizations report fielding calls from constituents worried about Dean’s record. Brody and other Jews close to Dean insist that the U.S. approach to Israel would not significantly change under Dean’s watch, and that Dean is a strong supporter of Israel’s security. They say Dean’s “even-handed” comment referred to perceptions that the Bush administration had distanced itself from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Dean meant that he wanted the United States to resume its role of honest broker between the sides. Several Jewish leaders remain unconvinced. “There are some real reservations and concerns,” said one senior Jewish leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is real concern whether this guy could stand up to the war on terrorism and do the right thing.” Morris Amitay, a pro-Israel activist, said Dean’s off-the-cuff remarks mean more than his scripted clarifications after the fact. “He can say the right thing, but they aren’t obviously what he feels when he’s speaking on his own,” said Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He’ll have to go to real great lengths to convince people that he can be trusted on this issue.” Another political analyst suggests that Dean needs to show more love for Israel and speak more of his trip last year to the Jewish state. Jewish leaders say their concerns run deeper than the off-handed use of “even-handed.” They worry that Dean does not have a clear record on the Middle East — largely because he is a former governor and not a legislator — and that he has made other questionable comments and decisions. They include naming Clyde Prestowitz as a foreign policy adviser. Prestowitz has said U.S. aid to Israel should be conditional on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Campaign officials stress that Prestowitz will focus on globalization and international economics, not the Middle East. Dean has called Hamas terrorists “soldiers,” a term that some say legitimizes the group. Dean used the term on CNN in defending Israel’s right to single out Hamas leaders for targeted killings, and his campaign says the word reinforces the argument that terrorists are legitimate military targets. Dean also has suggested former President Jimmy Carter as a potential Middle East envoy, while many Jews feel Carter is too sympathetic toward the Palestinians. Dean since has backed off those remarks, though his supporters say the controversy over them reflects a double-standard: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, another Democratic candidate, got into much less trouble for suggesting as envoys Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, also perceived as unfriendly to Israel. Most notably, Dean has been a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. Many Jews believe the war ousted a dangerous tyrant who had attacked Israel and could do so again, and they now see potential for stability in the region. The campaign counters that many in the Jewish community who are highlighting Dean’s missteps are supporters of President Bush or of Dean’s Democratic primary opponents. Dean even has suggested that Karl Rove, the White House’s senior political adviser, was behind the e-mail campaign. The White House and the Bush re-election campaign have refused to comment. “To send an e-mail like that is exactly the perfect tactic to set off fears in this community,” Dean recently told JTA. “Politics is a rough game and it’s an ugly game, but people who do these kinds of things ought not to be in politics and don’t deserve to win.” Dean’s supporters also say his comments on the Middle East appeal to liberal Jews who back a Palestinian state and want Israel to dismantle settlements and make other concessions for peace. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he believes members of his community are not reacting to the e-mails. He said that Reform congregants are examining Dean’s foreign policy on a more sophisticated level. “This effort to portray Dean as anti-Israel and ‘bad for the Jews’ I don’t think will be successful,” Yoffie said. “People are looking in a serious way at the broader issues, like his approach to foreign policy.” Certainly, this is not the first instance in which a candidate has gotten off to a shaky start because he has been largely unknown to the Jewish community. When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton campaigned in New York in 1992, Jewish leaders raised concerns that he did not unequivocally support Jerusalem as the undivided Israeli capital. The 2004 election, however, occurs against the backdrop of Middle East tumult. And with the popularization of the Internet and e-mail, concerns about Dean travel at cyberspeed. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said he has received lots of questions about Dean’s policy positions in the last four to six weeks. Many people in the Jewish community, Harris said, first learned about Dean’s Middle East views from the “even-handed” statement. “From that point forward, he’s been having to explain himself and undo the damage done from that one statement,” Harris said. “But this is certainly not a lost cause.” Dean campaign staffers are distributing a letter from Steve Grossman, the campaign co-chairman and former president of AIPAC, in which he cites 15 quotes from Dean supporting the Jewish state and outlining how Dean would handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Grossman’s letter also highlights the ADL’s declaration that the e-mail campaign is “malicious, misleading and factually inaccurate.” The campaign is targeting people who have received the anti-Dean e-mail, finding e-mail addresses of people who forwarded it on and asking that they forward the Dean campaign’s response as well. “The most important thing we need to get out to the Jewish media, the Jewish leaders and concerned Jewish citizens all over the country is the real story of who Howard Dean is, what he stands for and the level of leadership he will provide to the country,” Grossman told JTA. Grossman acknowledged that it will take a concerted effort to dispel the doubts about Dean — and that effort likely will be needed through November if Dean gets on the Democratic ticket this summer. Grossman and Matthew Dorf, Dean’s liaison to the Jewish community, will be meeting with Jewish leaders in New York next month. Campaign officials say their work in the Jewish community is no different from what other campaigns do in communities concerned about the candidate’s specific positions. “You can never allow someone to write all over your blank slate,” Grossman said.