Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts need the level of U.S. engagement employed by former President Clinton, Democratic candidates for the president told an audience of Iowa Jews this week.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich each said President Bush shares the blame for the collapse of the peace talks, charging him with neglect in the first months of his administration.
“If the United States had real leadership and was prepared to engage, it could have in fact advanced the cause of the peace,” Kerry said.
Instead, he said, “we left it in a vacuum, spiraling downwards, and we are where we are.”
Dean was applauded when he said that his first act as president would be to appoint Clinton envoy to the Middle East to pick up where he had left off in 2001.
“There will not be peace between the Palestinians and Israel until there is heavy intervention every day by the American president,” Dean said.
The candidates’ appearance Sunday at Tifereth Israel synagogue here came a day after six of the Democratic candidates for president addressed the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a showpiece in the lead up to the first test of the presidential election season, the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses.
A local rabbi, Ari Sytner, delivered the invocation at the dinner.
The invocation and the appearance of three of the candidates at the synagogue talk was a testament to the influence of Iowa’s small Jewish community. It also demonstrated the need for Democrats to draw support away from a president seen as very friendly to Israel.
About 250 people out of Des Moines 3,500-strong community attended the synagogue talk. The candidates peppered their speeches with Yiddish and Hebrew expressions.
Dean said Bush had promised much, but delivered “bupkes,” or nothing.
Kucinich said he embraced “tikkun olam,” the Talmudic injunction to heal the world.
Kerry recalled standing atop Masada and shouting “Am Yisrael Chai,” “The people of Israel live.”
More substantively, the candidates said that the outlines of a Middle East peace would closely adhere to the Camp David-Taba talks that Clinton helped negotiate, envisioning two states along pre-1967 lines and a shared Jerusalem.
“Most thoughtful people who follow this for a long time know what the framework for that peace looks like. That framework was very nearly arrived at in full in Taba in January of 2001,” Kerry said.
Some Bush administration officials have recently suggested they might embrace some aspects of the Camp David-Taba outlines.
The Democratic candidates intimated that advancing Middle East peace would involve using U.S. influence to prod Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hawkish government forward.
The U.S. role means at times “nudging our friend, leveraging when we need to,” Kerry said.
Dean said the United States has “to be seen as an honest broker at the bargaining table.”
Kucinich said he would ask Israel “to stop the building of walls, to stop the building of new settlements.”
That willingness to pressure Israel presents a weakness for Democrats in appeals to the Jewish community, where Bush is seen as exceptionally close to the Sharon government. For example, the Bush administration supported Israeli air strikes last month against suspected terrorist bases inside Syria.
Democrats have sought to compensate for the weakness by underscoring the role of Saudis in financing terror — and blasting what they say is the Bush administration’s coddling of the Saudi regime.
“The Saudi relationship with the United States is one of the most disgraceful, unexplained, overreaching relationships that I have seen in public life,” Kerry said.
In remarks that drew strong applause, Dean said Saudi money was funding the teaching of “hatred of Christians and Jews.”
Bud Hockenberg, a veteran Republican strategist who attended the event, said that drawing attention to past business relationships between the Saudis and Bush’s father and other senior Republicans was an effective strategy.
“That’s the Achilles’ heel of my team,” he said.
Kerry and Dean both said they would continue the isolation of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, saying he had undermined his leadership through his support of terrorism and his recalcitrance at the Camp David talks.
Kucinich recalled meeting Arafat during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, and asking him whether he had truly given up his dream of destroying Israel.
Arafat insisted he did, but Kucinich said he did not believe him because he saw “fear in his eyes.” It was America’s role, Kucinich said, to create the context that would give leaders like Arafat the courage to take genuine steps to peace.
Kerry, who spoke after Dean had left, attacked the Vermont governor for his reported comments this summer that America should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That and Dean’s use of the word “soldiers” to describe Hamas terrorists underscored the need for political experience, Kerry said.
“I think those are the kinds of mistakes that I’m talking about, that if you don’t have experience, that if you don’t understand it, that you make,” Kerry said.
Kerry, who recently underwent treatment for prostate cancer, earned applause when he leaped onto the dais instead of using a staircase.
Many of those attending said Kerry formed the strongest emotional bond of the three candidates.
He used the word “we” when he described Jewish experience, explaining that he felt kinship with Jews after his recent discovery that his father’s father was Jewish.
He also was the only one of the three to mention the Holocaust, and the United States’ role in turning away Jews during the rise of Nazism in Europe.
“There is no community that I need to say less to about how dangerous and complicated the world is,” Kerry said.
He said that when he shouted “Am Yisrael Chai” from Masada, he could hear “the echoes of the voices of the souls of Israel.”
“You converted me today,” David Moscowitz, a local man, told Kerry, grasping his hand after the talk.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.