It’s become the buzz phrase of the Democratic convention: “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.” President Clinton earned an extended ovation in Boston this week when he packed John Kerry’s message on security and international relations into those seven words. Kerry would not hesitate to act, the message suggests, but he also would show greater openness to the concerns of those outside his administration, and abroad.
“Democrats favor shared responsibility, shared opportunity and more global cooperation,” Clinton said. “We live in an interdependent world in which we can’t kill, jail or occupy all our potential adversaries, so we have to both fight terror and build a world with more partners and fewer terrorists.”
The anxious question Jewish Democrats have been posing to those running the Massachusetts senator’s campaign has been: What does the message — and its implied criticism of President Bush’s foreign policy — mean f! or Israel?
No one would speak on the record at what is necessarily a love-fest for the party’s candidate. But in numerous behind-the-scenes meetings with senior Kerry officials, Jewish Democrats have posed hard questions: Would Kerry’s overall plan to consult more with other nations, raise the profile of international bodies and restore Clinton-era cooperation with Europe pull the United States away from the extraordinary closeness Bush has forged with Israel?
The anxieties have hardly been quieted by speeches at the convention, where speaker after speaker has emphasized the kind of global cooperation that Israel’s current Likud-led government reviles because of the perceived pro-Arab tilt of the European Union and other international bodies.
It didn’t help that figures who have been on the wrong end of Jewish community anger eagerly reinforced that message in forums large and small.
President Carter, who many Jews feel has taken a consistently pro-Palestinian! line since being voted out of office in 1980, riled some when he drew a link between the Bush administration’s Israel policy and anti-American animus.
“Violence has gripped the Holy Land, with the region increasingly swept by anti-American passions,” Carter told the convention in a prime-time speech that many Democrats said marked his revival as a central figure in the party.
Robert Borosage, an adviser to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988, reinforced the point in an Arab American Institute panel.
“America today is more isolated and less admired and less secure than ever,” he said, citing U.S. policy toward Israel as one reason.
Senior Democrats say Kerry’s message has more to do with alleviating pressure on America in Iraq, and not specifically with Israel. But that didn’t stop the questions in closed-door forums.
Specifically, would Kerry defer to European demands that the United States end its isolation of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat? Would Kerry be as proactive as Bush in pressing the Euro! peans to contain the surge in anti-Semitism? And would Kerry be as aggressive as Bush in isolating Iran and pressing it to dismantle its nuclear capability?
For answers, Democrats point to the party platform and Kerry’s record: He is unequivocal in supporting the isolation of Arafat and a nuclear shutdown in Iran. As far as anti-Semitism goes, Kerry campaigners suggest he may be even more adamant than Bush.
The president only has alluded to virulent strains of anti-Semitism in the Egyptian and Saudi mainstreams, they say, while Kerry has been more direct, even using an expletive in a meeting three years ago with Hosni Mubarak when the Egyptian president insisted he couldn’t control the phenomenon.
Jewish leaders take comfort in such reassurances, but Democrats have been put on the defensive by a relentless Republican opposition research team: Even a tiny donation that trickled down from Teresa Heinz Kerry’s charitable foundation to the virulently anti-Israel Counc! il on American Islamic Relations has become an issue. Top Kerry offici als say Heinz Kerry was at least three times removed from the donation, and was unaware of it.
It also doesn’t help that Kerry often appears to follow Bush’s lead in his pro-Israel policy, approving Israel’s West Bank security barrier only after Bush did, and recognizing some Israeli West Bank claims and rejecting a Palestinian refugee “right of return” after Bush had made those historic gestures.
The question of Kerry’s approach to peacemaking was central Wednesday to a packed National Jewish Democratic Council forum on whether Jews are turning Republican.
Several noted many in Israel are apprehensive at the prospect of increased U.S. pressure on Israel to make peace when it feels it doesn’t have a trustworthy partner on the other side. Others at the forum said there was no reason to fear U.S. activism.
“Being pro-Israel means making sure Israel is at peace,” said Geoffrey Lewis, a Boston lawyer who is active with the Israel Policy Forum. “An active U.S. engage! ment is critical to that goal.”
Lewis said he believes most U.S. Jews would support greater engagement in the Middle East peace process.
Until now, one problem for the campaign had been the lack of a central pro-Israel figure in the top tier. Kerry filled that hole this week when he named Mel Levine, a former California congressman, to head the campaign’s Middle East policy formulation.
The Kerry team already is using Levine, who until recently was a member of the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to reach out to U.S. Jews, and he spoke at several Jewish events during the convention.
Kerry also has consulted with top Clinton-era Middle East officials Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, both Jews, with a possible eye to appointments.
Levine, Ross and Indyk all have superb relations with the Jewish community, but they still pose a problem of timing: The current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rejects the approach to pea! ce that their biographies suggest, such as insisting that Israel maint ain dialogue and negotiations even when the Palestinians are carrying out terrorist attacks.
The Jewish Democrats attending the convention sympathize to a degree with the outlooks of Levine, Ross and Indyk.
Still, they also dread confrontations between Sharon’s government and an administration that would demand progress in the Middle East even when one side or the other is not fulfilling its commitments.
They are especially concerned that such pressure could emerge because of the dividends Israeli-Palestinian peace would provide toward the international assistance Kerry would seek in Iraq.
The party answer to that concern is a grim numbers crunch: Clinton’s final year in office involved much dialogue, little progress and few Israeli dead. Bush’s three and a half years in office have seen little dialogue, little progress and nearly 1,000 Israeli dead.
Dialogue may be painfully slow, they say, but it stems violence. Of course, Bush did inherit the intifada, ! which erupted on Clinton’s watch after his grandiose peace efforts failed — and, some would say, precisely because the Democratic president failed to take a tough line against Palestinian terrorism during the Oslo years.
“Bush may be pro-Israel, but he has not been successful in being pro-Israel,” said Ivy Cohen, a Democratic activist from New York attending the convention. “Kerry would actively work toward a solution, not just pay lip service.”