WASHINGTON Aug. 10 (JTA) — The big blank space on Mel Levine’s CV — being out of the inner circle of Middle Eastern diplomacy for 10 years — may be the biggest asset he brings to John Kerry, who took him on last week as his campaign’s top Middle East adviser. Levine, 62, served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California from 1983-1993, earning a reputation as one of Israel’s closest friends on Capitol Hill. For Kerry, bringing Levine on board is “a brilliant move,” said Steven Spiegel, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, a dovish group that promotes U.S. engagement in the region. “You want someone in that kind of a position who has impeccable pro-Israel credentials, who is not controversial, who has broad respect from a variety of figures — that’s hard to get these days. It shows the campaign is in close touch with the community.” Levine, who is Jewish, will play a key role in a close election in which both campaigns are chasing Jewish votes in swing states. Nonetheless, he downplayed his role in the Kerry campaign’s “Middle East policy working group.” “One of the things that is unique about this presidential campaign, the principal foreign policy person for Kerry is Kerry,” he said. “He’s steeped in knowledge of these issues, so no foreign policy adviser should overestimate the role he or she would play.” That may be the case, but many in the Jewish community were relieved at Levine’s hiring by a candidate who still is not particularly well known outside his home state of Massachusetts, and who — despite a 100 percent pro-Israel voting record during 19 years in the U.S. Senate — still is seen as an unknown quantity on Israel. “Mel Levine is highly respected in the American Jewish community, and his appointment is a strong addition to the Kerry campaign foreign policy team,” said Josh Block, spokesman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where Levine until recently served as a board member. “While in Congress, he was a potent force on what is now known as the House International Relations Committee, particularly on the Middle East subcommittee, where he dealt with numerous highly important issues related to Israel’s security,” Block said. Those sentiments were echoed by Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director. “Mel is an experienced congressman who during his years in Congress was active on foreign relations and a significant public advocate of support for Israel,” Foxman said. Kerry’s campaign has been trying hard to close a perceived gap on the Israel issue with President Bush, who current Israeli leaders believe is the friendliest American president ever toward the Jewish state. The Democratic candidate has made strides in recent months with a policy paper that struck all the right notes and by using his Jewish brother, Cameron, who speaks eloquently of the central role Israel plays in his family’s Judaism. Still, the pro-Israel community was concerned about a retinue of advisers — including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk — who are perceived as being tainted by the failed Oslo peace process. “These are people who reflect the policy of the past,” one American Jewish official said. “Will it be a redux of failed policies?” Levine’s resume helps answer that question: He played a central role in the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel policy until a year before the launch of Oslo in 1993, when he ran for the U.S. Senate but lost. That means he’s identified with Democrats from a time when the party unstintingly defended Israel against the policies of Bush’s father, who was perceived as unfriendly to the Jewish state — not with the sometimes nettlesome relations that dogged U.S.-Israel relations during the Oslo process under a Democratic president. “He has the background, but not the baggage,” said another Jewish communal official, speaking anonymously. Levine especially is identified with pro-Israel antagonism to the first Bush. It was Levine who, during a House hearing, chastised Secretary of State James Baker for publicly criticizing Israel for building in eastern Jerusalem when the Palestinians and Arabs were doing little to engage the Israelis toward peace. In one of the most rankling episodes in the history of U.S.-Israel relations, Baker told Levine that when Israel was serious about peace, “the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414,” the number for White House switchboard. “I remember that exchange quite vividly.” Levine said with a chuckle. “I was surprised at the response: It clearly underscored the tension that existed at that time between those of us in Congress who felt Bush-Baker were unduly harsh on the one hand, and the Bush-Baker position on the other. It crystallized that conflict.” One Jewish communal leader couldn’t help noting the irony — Levine is returning to the scene at a time when another President Bush is chiding Israel for building near Jerusalem. The administration has been upset about Israeli plans to add another 600 housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim, a bedroom community in the West Bank. Now a practicing lawyer, Levine didn’t leave Israel behind after leaving Congress: In addition to his stint on the AIPAC board, he was named a co-chairman, along with Arab-American Institute President James Zogby, of Builders for Peace — an outfit that sought, with only moderate success, to facilitate investment in the nascent Palestinian entity. After the Wye accords in 1998, Levine was named as a U.S. representative to a task force charged with monitoring incitement — experience that he said would help inform his advice to Kerry. “You have to confront it directly and aggressively,” Levine said. “It was understood belatedly by the Clinton administration to be an important issue. They clearly understood it, but they wish they had been more aggressive earlier.” Levine says Kerry agrees — and has proven his commitment. “Kerry’s been very direct and clear when he confronts examples of anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry,” he said. “When he sees it, he knows it and calls it. He has been critical of” Egyptian President Hosni “Mubarak and the Saudis in a way other politicians should be.” Levine acknowledges that one of his jobs will be to convince Jewish voters that Kerry’s call for a renewed push for Palestinian-Israeli peace — and increased multilateralism — does not mean a return to Oslo. Kerry “would restore American credibility and respect internationally,” he said. “That could only be good for Israel because we need help in order to accomplish things important to Israel — keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, obtaining help from others to pressure the Palestinians to be more responsive, pressure on states that support terror such as Syria and Iran. We can’t achieve those results alone; they require multilateral efforts. America’s isolation is bad for Israel.” Multilateralism may still be a hard sell to a U.S. Jewish community wary of a perceived pro-Arab tilt in much of the international community. As welcome as Levine’s appointment was, Jewish officials said the crucial element in understanding Kerry’s approach to Israel was Kerry himself. Significantly, some of Levine’s “welcome aboards” from the Jewish community were tempered by “wait-and-see” qualifications. “He is a strong advocate and hopefully that will be reflected in the policies of the campaign,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.
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