As Critic of Israel — and Spoiler for Democrats — Nader Irks Jews

Jewish communal officials are trying to ensure that Ralph Nader does not play the same role in the 2004 presidential election as he did four years earlier. Nader, the 2000 Green Party candidate who some say took key votes away from Democratic candidate Al Gore in a razor-tight election, again is seeking the White House, this time as an independent.

An outspoken opponent of aid to Israel and a constant critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East, Nader for years has been a thorn in the side of many liberal and conservative Jews. While his domestic policy views, which traditionally have focused on consumer rights, align closely with those of most Jewish voters, Jews largely have avoided Nader because of other differences with him and his style.

As the Democratic and Republican candidates vie to prove their pro-Israel credentials — long a staple of American presidential races — Nader has chosen to voice views harshly critical of ! Israel.

If he establishes himself as a credible candidate, those views could spark more public discussion of positions associated with diehard critics of the Jewish state, such as those that say Israeli interests dictate U.S. foreign policy, and with the Israeli peace movement, such as opposition to the route of Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

Some recent controversial comments are giving Jewish communal officials an excuse to criticize Nader. But while there is genuine fury at what Nader is saying, some liberal Jews may also want to discredit Nader to minimize the Jewish vote for him in key states, aiding the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, against President Bush.

In an interview last month, Nader told American Conservative magazine that he believed Congress and successive U.S. administrations, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s, have been “puppets to Israeli military police.”

In the interview with Pat Bucha! nan, a critic of Israel, Nader said the United States was ignoring the Israeli and Palestinian peace movements and that Democrats and Republicans defer to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington because of political considerations.

Nader often has used the issue of Israel to demonstrate his belief that both major political parties are too similar.

Nader has some Jewish backers. Some of his most loyal activists are Jewish, including Alan Morrison, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the legal arm of Nader’s consumer advocacy group.

Calls to Nader’s campaign seeking comment, and information about Jewish support for his candidacy, were not returned.

But Nader’s recent comments on Israel prompted rebukes from several Jewish figures.

“Nader’s diatribes send the wrong message, because there are too many in the Arab world who use any sign of weakness in the U.S.-Israel relationship as a justification for hardening their opposition to the Jewish state,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said.

The Anti-Defamation League wrote Nade! r a letter calling his comments “offensive hyperbole.”

“One may disagree with America’s Middle East approach, but to assert that U.S. policy in such a complex and volatile region is the product of wholesale manipulation by a foreign government fails to take into account important U.S. interests that are involved,” the letter read. “Moreover, the image of the Jewish state as a ‘puppeteer,’ controlling the powerful U.S. Congress, feeds into many age-old stereotypes which have no place in legitimate public discourse.”

As a non-profit organization, the ADL does not endorse political candidates, and officials say the group’s rationale for coming out against Nader is not political.

Rep. Israel, who is backing Kerry, also said he was not motivated by partisan politics in criticizing Nader’s remarks.

“For me, this isn’t about pro-Kerry or anti-Kerry,” he told JTA. “It’s anti-Nader because of Nader’s castigation of U.S.-Israeli relations. I’ll let the chips fall where ! they may.”

But Nader’s comments allowed one group, the National Je wish Democratic Council, to merge politics with support for Israel. The group, which is backing Kerry, is working to highlight Nader’s Middle East rhetoric in a bid to keep Democrats from defecting to Nader’s camp.

“The NJDC will be committed to making sure that the American Jewish community knows where he stands on Israel and other issues,” David Harris, the group’s deputy executive director, said of Nader.

Certainly, Jews are not the only liberal constituency worried about Nader’s impact on the upcoming election. Concerned that Nader would take votes away from Kerry in key states, the Green Party chose a different candidate for president this year. The party’s nominee, David Cobb, has said he will not campaign in swing states.

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