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America Decides 2004: News Analysis Kerry Learns to Walk the Walk in His Journey Toward the Jews

July 20, 2004
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Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has learned in the last year to walk the walk on Israel and Jewish issues. The nagging worry for Israel’s government is that he might break into a run.

Political insiders see the single substantive difference between the Middle East policies of President Bush and the presumptive Democratic nominee is not in their content, but in their pace.

On his official Web site, Kerry says peace will “only be viable if U.S. engagement in this process is active, constant, and at the highest levels.”

That’s a clear shot at Bush: Except for a short period in the summer of 2003, the Bush administration has largely left the pace of Middle East peace to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Kerry’s champing at the bit worries Israel’s leaders. No matter how pro-Israel he is, they say, an American president who takes an active, involved role in Middle East peacemaking inevitably veers into confrontations.

Still, it ! is a measure of how far Kerry has come with Jewish voters that his stated difference with Bush over the depth of U.S. involvement in peace-brokering is the single issue raising questions about Jewish support for his campaign.

Many believe Kerry has caught up with Bush on pro-Israel statements, reinforced the natural advantage any Democrat has on domestic issues and opened a new front — with his brother’s emotion-laden visit to Israel last week — to combat a perceived empathy problem.

“You’ll see Kerry doing extraordinarily well among Jewish voters on election day,” said Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who during the primaries switched allegiances to Kerry from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

“John Kerry has as good a record on Israel as anyone has ever had; his public statements and his commitment to American values and Jewish values are unequivocal,” said Grossman, who also served as chairman of the Democrat! ic National Committee.

Kerry has striven to address perceived mi ssteps early in his campaign, when he said of Israel’s West Bank security barrier, “we don’t need another barrier to peace” and named as possible peace brokers President Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker — figures many Jews view as anti-Israel.

“Kerry has matched the rhetoric of Bush on all the issues,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and one of a group of Jewish organizational leaders who met with Kerry in January to address concerns that rose during the primaries. “Now it’s a question of trust. What Bush has going for him is that he has acted on these things; Kerry still needs an opportunity.”

Kerry says he, like Bush, would leave the lead to Israel, but Israeli officials say — when the microphones are off and the pens and pads are put away — that his repeated commitment to accelerating the peace process worries them.

Sharon, for his part, has not made much of a secret of his preferences.

“In all th! ese years, I have never met a leader as committed as you are, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists,” Sharon told Bush when they met in April.

He snubbed Kerry during that visit, as did his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, last month. Israeli leaders usually make a point of meeting with both candidates when visiting during an election year. Sharon, did, however, meet Kerry’s brother, Cameron, in Israel last week.

The snubs rankle the Kerry camp.

“Sharon will find the same support in a Kerry White House,” said one senior adviser who asked not to be identified.

Grossman said that greater presidential involvement should not worry Jewish voters, as long as the president has Israel’s best interests at heart — which, he says, Kerry does.

“It’s a strong personal and philosophical commitment to involvement and engagement to try to do whatever he can to enhance Israel’s capacity to live in peace,” Grossman ! said. “To the extent that the president is deeply engaged in that, it will be good for Israel and good for the United States.”

Concerns about the depth of U.S. involvement, it should be noted, are typical of Israeli governments led by the Likud Party; Labor Party prime ministers often have welcomed more intense U.S. involvement.

If, in the next few weeks, Sharon is forced to bring the Labor Party in to bolster his minority government, Israel might reduce its resistance to the greater involvement Kerry envisions. In that case, the prospect of conflicts between Israel and a Kerry administration would be less of an issue.

Such calculations seem arcane but may prove critical: Jews could make the difference in 10 of the 18 states that analysts say could swing either way in the U.S. election in November.

And Jews, who voted against Bush four to one in 2000, could be swayed by Bush’s pro-Israel policies to an extent that could decide the election.

“People are still formulating their opinions,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executi! ve vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Three months is a long time in politics.”

Kerry has all but abandoned his earlier efforts to court Arab Americans on Israel-Palestinian issues, probably because their vote is virtually guaranteed. The community, which leaned to Bush in 2000, has turned on the president because of post-Sept. 11 policies they say limit civil liberties and institute ethnic profiling.

More than half of Arab Americans polled in swing states say they will vote for Kerry, according to polling by the Arab American Institute, and more than half of that support comes “because Kerry is not George W. Bush,” said James Zogby, the group’s president.

U.S. Jewish voters see the issue of the level of U.S. involvement both ways, Foxman said.

“To some in the Jewish community, to be more active is to put pressure on Israel,” he said. Others, he noted, favor greater involvement.

Still, the prospect of U.! S.-Israel tensions could sway some Jewish voters, and the Kerry campai gn — which has 27 teams formulating foreign policy alone — is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to reassure Jews of its commitment.

Kerry’s campaign is planning a major surrogate blitz after Labor Day, sending Jewish advocates out to large Jewish communities to make the case for the candidate.

In the past few months, Kerry has marched in lockstep, at least in words, with every one of the White House pro-Israel strides: He immediately matched Bush’s historic recognition of some Israeli claims to West Bank land and rejection of any right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

The day the International Court of Justice at The Hague decided that Israel’s security fence was illegal, Kerry’s campaign issued its condemnation the same day.

“Israel’s fence is a legitimate response to terror that only exists in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israel,” Kerry said in a statement. “The fence is an important tool in Israel’s fight against terr! orism. It is not a matter for the ICJ.”

Modifying his positions on Israel issues poses its own political perils, leaving an opening for the Bush-Cheney campaign to accuse him of flip-flopping.

“Support for Israel’s fight against terrorism needs to be above politics, and Kerry’s comments are another reminder of why voters can’t trust him,” Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said last week after Kerry condemned the world court ruling.

Kerry spokesmen counter by pointing to Bush’s own evolution on the barrier over the last year, from opposition to support.

One sign of the seriousness with which Kerry takes the Jewish community is his distribution last month of a series of “talking points” to thousands of Jewish supporters for redistribution in their communities.

The three-page, single-spaced document reiterated familiar positions — on the fence, isolating Arafat and bolstering Israel’s security — and even highlighted areas it sees as vulnerabilit! ies in President Bush’s reputation as Israel’s staunchest ally.

It promised tougher talk with Saudi Arabia over that country’s support for terrorists, an allusion to the Bush family’s closeness to the Saudi royal family; it supported moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a congressional mandate that Bush, like President Clinton before him, also promised but has resisted; and it expressed support for Israel’s policy of targeting terrorist leaders for assassination, a practice Bush administration spokesmen have said is unhelpful.

Kerry has not neglected domestic issues, even though he easily trumps Bush in that arena among the majority of Jews who express concern about post-Sept. 11 infringements on civil liberties and who support abortion rights and oppose a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

His campaign emphasizes his role in initiating the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill that would make it easier for the faithful to observe religious holidays and dress codes and that has strong Jewish support across all ! streams. Orthodox Jews are pleased that Kerry has pledged to support federal money for faith-based initiatives, even if he would be place greater restrictions than proposed by Bush.

Some Jewish organizational officials have complained that Kerry lacks the visceral affection for Israel that Bush has displayed, reflecting Kerry’s general problem of a perception of aloofness.

In response, Kerry stresses his personal impressions of his visits to Israel, recalling his flyover in an Israeli fighter jet and ascending Masada.

Another tactic has been to emphasize the involvement in the campaign of his brother, Cameron Kerry, who converted to Judaism 20 years ago and who Grossman said would be the “Bobby Kennedy” in a Kerry administration.

Cameron visited Israel for the first time last week, and he made a point of emphasizing his own visceral responses to the country — and relating them to his brother.

John Kerry has “a deep emotional bond with Israel,” Cameron K! erry told JTA after touring Jerusalem and the security fence last week . “One of the reasons I came here is because of his bonds with Israel and I wanted to see that for myself.”

Another avenue for emphasizing both Kerrys’ identification with Jewish issues is the recent discovery that their father was born to Jewish parents and that they had relatives who died in the Holocaust.

Cameron Kerry toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and obtained photocopies of documents related to his family that he said he would share with his brother.

“There’s no question that he’s very proud of his ancestry,” said Mark Mellman, Kerry’s pollster and one of two Jews among Kerry’s top four advisers. “There’s no question that he’s learned a lot more about it.”

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