WASHINGTON, May 23 (JTA) Whoever the next president of the United States might be, the pro-Israel community seems to like what he has to say.
Then again the messages Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore conveyed to delegates at this week’s annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee seemed indistinguishable.
It will be up to pro-Israel Americans to make further distinctions as the presidential campaign intensifies or to determine the candidate’s position on Israel is not the defining issue that it once was for many Jews.
Both candidates reiterated a strong relationship and commitment to Israel, condemned Iran for its trial of 13 Jews accused of espionage and expressed support for the Middle East peace process.
Bush, who spoke Monday, received a standing ovation as he promised conference participants in Washington that he would move the U.S. ambassador in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Bush campaign reportedly said the governor meant to say the embassy as well.
The move has been legislated by Congress, but the Clinton administration has said it would be counterproductive to the Israeli-Palestinian talks if it were moved now.
Gore did not address the issue.
Bush also repeated the Republican stance that the United States must not interfere with Israel’s democratic process, intimating that the Clinton administration pushes Israel too much on various issues.
“In recent times, Washington has tried to make Israel conform to its own plans and timetables,” Bush told more than 1,700 conference attendees. “But that is not the path to peace.”
Gore, who spoke Tuesday morning, touched on similar issues and defended the administration’s involvement in Middle East peace negotiations. He said the United States “facilitates but does not force” peace.
He also chided Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders for not quelling the recent violence in the West Bank. It is their responsibility to prevent violence, Gore said.
“This is a test for them,” he told the packed hotel ballroom.
Bush said 13 Jews facing espionage charges in Iran are unjustly imprisoned.
“The leaders of Iran should know that America will judge them by their conduct and treatment of those 13,” he said.
Bush also said the special relationship between the United States and Israel would continue no matter what the outcome of the peace process, and that economic cooperation between the two countries strengthens the relationship.
Gore used the occasion to punctuate his long-standing relationship to Israel and his foreign policy expertise.
“Commitment to Israel is not new to me,” Gore said in an implicit swipe at Bush’s lack of experience.
This year was the first time AIPAC hosted both presidential candidates at its policy gathering.
Despite welcoming receptions for both candidates, judging by the applause and reaction of the audience, Bush is still No. 2 to Gore.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that despite recent inroads for Jewish Republicans, American Jews still overwhelming vote Democratic.
Gore, who has spoken to many Jewish audiences, did his best to show his connections to the American Jewish community by extending greetings to AIPAC board members and acknowledging personal friends in the audience.
He received a heartfelt, minutes-long round of applause before he even spoke a single word.
Gore also showed he has a way with a Jewish audience. Whether it’s telling a story about former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion or using a little Yiddish, Gore seems to lose a little of his legendary stiffness when he addresses a Jewish crowd.
At the end of his speech, Gore brought the crowd to its feet when he said safeguarding Israel was not just his policy, but is “in my heart, in my conscience and in my bones and in my soul.”
Bush, who has less experience addressing Jewish groups, did his best to connect with the audience.
At one point he noted the tiny distance in Israel between enemy lines and Israel’s population centers before the 1967 Six-Day War.
“I was told that before the Six-Day War, Israel was only nine miles wide at its narrowest. In Texas, some driveways are longer than that.”
The audience responded, but Bush failed to win over everyone.
Elaine Levine of Delray Beach, Fla., said she found Bush’s speech to be “poor.”
A Gore supporter, Levine believes Bush is not very smart and she would not trust him as president. “He would not be good on Israel,” Levine said.
Bush had some support from conference participant Stephen Tanner of West Virginia who said Bush sounded pro-Israel, but most politicians do.
“If he does what he says, then we’re OK,” Tanner said. He said that either Gore or Bush would be a good president, as far as their policies on Israel are concerned, but Tanner still prefers Bush.
Tanner is not worried about Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience because, he said, every president is led around by advisers.
But Ariel Rubin, a 19-year-old Dartmouth student, is concerned about the governor’s foreign policy inexperience.
“It’s easy to make promises,” Rubin said, but Bush should be more “realistic.”
Roland Moskowitz, a participant from Cleveland, finds Gore honest and sincere.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable,” Moskowitz said. “We know where he stands.”