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A Jewish President? Lieberman Faces Tough Questions from Across the Jewish Spectrum

January 16, 2003
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Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is already facing tough questions from the organized American Jewish community on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts.

In his first appearance before a Jewish audience after announcing his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, Lieberman addressed a large gathering of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday.

Lieberman said he was there not as a candidate but as a lawmaker to report on his recent trip to the Middle East. His aspirations for the White House, however, certainly appeared to factor into his comments.

Sources say Lieberman called the meeting with Jewish leaders specifically to address concern within the Orthodox and more hawkish segments of the community about comments he made while in the Middle East last month.

At the time, he said he supported a Saudi Arabian peace initiative that called for Israel to revert to its 1967 borders in exchange for recognition from the Arab world.

He also said he had heard positive signs from some Palestinian leaders about the prospects for reform — and the need to end the intifada.

As his campaign kicks off, he is also being questioned by more liberal Jewish leaders, who oppose his support for school vouchers and faith-based initiatives and his view that faith should play a stronger role in government programs and policies.

Speaking to what many believe to be his base of support — the Jewish community — Lieberman straddled the line between clarifying his views to assuage Jewish critics and sticking by his statements.

Lieberman said he agreed with President Bush’s June 24 speech at the White House, in which he called for new Palestinian leadership and a conditional Palestinian state.

"I said in both Israel and to the Palestinians that there remains support in the United States for a two-state solution, but it will not happen until there is 100 percent effort to stop terrorism by the Palestinians," Lieberman said.

But he said that now the Palestinians were only showing about 10 percent effort.

Lieberman also criticized the Bush administration for not being active enough to make progress in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. On Tuesday, he called on the Bush administration to appoint an emissary for the conflict.

"The administration made a good statement and then left the field," he told the group. "The fact is nothing good is going to happen there unless America is on the ground and pushing the parties."

Lieberman said he did not meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat because he agrees with the administration that Arafat "hasn’t earned the kind of interaction" that the Palestinian leader once enjoyed.

Lieberman defended his support for Saudi involvement in the Middle East peace negotiations, noting that while the details of the Saudi plan proposed last year were "unacceptable," their entree into the negotiating process was significant and should be nurtured.

Lieberman said he believed that Saudi Arabia would allow the United States to use its air bases in an attack against Iraq and urged its leaders to help fight radical Islam, noting that Saudi Arabia is a "more likely target" for attacks from Al-Qaida than the United States.

With more than a year until the first presidential primary, Jewish leaders say the initial enthusiasm that greeted his announcement may dissipate as Jewish voters choose the Democratic candidate with whom they most identify on the issues.

Lieberman faces obstacles among both the liberal and conservative segments of the Jewish constituency for different reasons.

Liberal Jewish leaders say Lieberman’s support for school vouchers is a real problem and could be a litmus test for some Jews.

On Monday, in his announcement to go for the Democratic nomination, Lieberman laid out certain conditions for vouchers, saying they should only be used for low-income students and funds should not be taken from public school budgets.

"Opposition to vouchers is a major position of our movement," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella of Reform congregations. "His support for vouchers in the past is certain to be a source of concern."

And despite Lieberman’s attempt at damage control Wednesday, some hawkish Jewish leaders remain skeptical of his views on the Middle East on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I felt he did not appreciate the concern and the inappropriateness of the statements he made concerning Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians Arabs" when he was the region, said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Lieberman said he is not concerned about his Jewish base, joking that polls show his support goes beyond the Jewish community.

"I’m an independent thinker, I’m always going to try to do what I think is right and best for this country," Lieberman said. "I’m going to have the honesty to tell my friends when I think they’re wrong and my opponents when I think they are right."

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