Rudy hits Fla., talks Mideast


NEW YORK (JTA) – As Rudy Giuliani launched an intense campaign this week in Florida in an effort to keep his presidential hopes alive, the Republican candidate praised the leaders behind the current U.S.-backed peace push – but voiced skepticism over whether it would work.

Some right-leaning Israelis and American Jews who generally share Giuliani’s hawkish views on the Middle East have been increasingly critical of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s willingness to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But in a phone interview Monday with JTA, Giuliani expressed confidence in the way Bush and Olmert are handling the situation, and even accepted the premise pushed by many Israeli and U.S. officials that Abbas is genuine in his desire to reach a peace agreement.

The problem, said Giuliani, whose poll numbers are lagging nationally and in Florida, is that it is unclear whether Abbas can deliver the rest of the Palestinians.

“I come from the school of Ronald Reagan, which is trust but verify,” he said. “Trust is one thing, but then let’s verify and make sure these things are actually taking place. That’s the more important part of it.”

Giuliani placed sixth in the Iowa caucuses and fourth in the New Hampshire primary. His hopes of securing the Republican nomination are now widely seen as hinging on a win in Florida.

Though he wouldn’t say Florida was a must-win, Giuliani acknowledged the state was enormously important to his campaign.

With the GOP contest still very much in play after split victories by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain in Iowa and New Hampshire, much focus is now being directed at Florida.

The state boasts the country’s third largest Jewish community, whose votes may be critical in the Republican primary despite the community’s strong Democratic leanings.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), a prominent McCain backer, was scheduled to appear at a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Boca Raton. The RJC also scheduled an event for Friday in Florida with U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is campaigning for Giuliani.

Earlier on Wednesday, Lieberman was due to appear at an Orthodox synagogue in Charleston, S.C., where the primary will be held Jan. 26. In a letter from Lieberman sent earlier this month, Jewish voters in South Carolina were urged to use absentee ballots if they could not vote in person because the primary is scheduled on Shabbat.

In his conversation with JTA, Giuliani laid out four criteria the Palestinians must meet if a peace process is to advance: declare support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; state that they will end terrorism; exercise control over terrorism; and demonstrate their intentions to build an accountable government.

It was part of his general effort to pitch himself as the candidate most equipped to wage the war against terrorism.

Giuliani explained his insistence on the four criteria for negotiating with the Palestinians.

“If all those things are really happening, and we are satisfied that they’re really happening, then you have the basis for a peace process,” Giuliani said. “If not, we should not create expectations that can’t be fulfilled, like has happened in the past.”

While Jewish groups have expressed concern in recent weeks about the degree of religious rhetoric that has infused the Republican primary, Giuliani said he was not troubled by all the God talk.

“Religion is something that informs someone’s thinking and character,” he said. “If they want to talk about it they can, if they don’t want to talk about it they don’t have to. But there should not be a religious test for office in America.

“That point is right in the Constitution of the United States, and it’s been made over and over again in our elections. If this election is another election in which we make that point, that would be a good thing for America.”

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