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Dean-lieberman Dustup Reflects Focus of Israel As Political Issue

September 17, 2003
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Political bloodletting in the lead-up to the Democratic presidential primaries was inevitable with so many candidates vying for attention.

And the Middle East — a minefield of sensitivity and scrutiny — was a likely forum for it to start.

The Howard Dean-Joseph Lieberman dustup may have died down since last week, but expect more of the same, say veteran Democrats and political analysts.

“You’re seeing the beginnings of the gloves coming off on the Democratic side — nine people are vying for a majority of 4,600 delegates,” said Mark Wrighton, an expert on Democratic Party politics at the University of New Hampshire.

“They will be competing on the edges for those delegates and will have to distinguish each other on a number of topics — the Mideast is one.”

Lieberman seized his opportunity when a reporter overheard Dean’s comment to a supporter at a Santa Fe, N.M. rally. “I don’t find it convenient to blame people. Nobody should have violence, ever. But they do, and it’s not our place to take sides,” Dean said.

Lieberman was soon chiding Dean at a debate.

“Howard Dean’s statements break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republican and Democratic, members of Congress of both parties, have supported our relationship with Israel, based on shared values,” he said.

Attacking Dean on Israel made sense for Lieberman, Wrighton said, because it’s an issue with which the Jewish senator from Connecticut is comfortable.

“Lieberman has to differentiate himself, and he has experience here, and it’s an issue that is dear to one of his constituencies,” he said.

Another factor was Dean’s front-runner status: Any perceived slip becomes irresistible fodder for the other candidates.

Peter Fenn, a leading Democratic strategist in Washington, said the scrutiny of Dean’s Middle East thinking is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

“It happens with every phenom — the power of the microscope gets turned up,” Fenn said.

Other candidates also weighed in on the debate, while some in Congress criticized Dean’s calls for an “even- handed” approach to the Middle East.

Supporters in Congress of another candidate, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Indiana — who likely will face a tough challenge from Dean in the Iowa caucuses in February — wrote Dean a letter, saying: “We believe it is wrong to say the U.S. should ‘not take sides’ in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.”

They wrote, “In these difficult times, we must reaffirm our unyielding commitment to Israel’s survival and raise our voices against all forms of terrorism and incitement.”

For his part, Dean said, “I’ve learned that ‘even-handed’ is a sensitive word in certain communities.” He added, “perhaps I should have used a different euphemism.”

Speaking to a CNN interviewer last week, he accused his political rivals of “demagoguery” and said, “What Joe and others are doing on Israel is despicable,” singling out Lieberman.

“The mistakes that the governor made last week were only mistakes of words, not of conscience,” Dean’s spokesman, Eric Schmelzer, told JTA.

“This party has always been united, and Dean would never allow for a split to occur, especially when there’s no split there.”

Using the Middle East as a blunt rhetorical instrument in presidential primaries is not new, said Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime liaison between the Jewish community and political parties.

He recalled a 1984 battle between Democratic candidates Walter Mondale and Gary Hart over how and when the United States should move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Such efforts to score political points were dangerous to the consensus of political support for Israel, Bookbinder said, because they create perceptions of differences where none really exist.

“You can overdo this,” he said. “There are bigger issues involved.”

Another problem for Democrats is that the likeliest benefactors of the infighting are Republicans, said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant.

“It’s policy righteousness, but it’s political amateurishness,” Rabinowitz said.

But it’s not just politics, according to Wrighton. Shining a light on a candidate’s approach to the most sensitive issues helps voters make choices.

“The Mideast is always going to be a topic, given the role that presidents have to play in the process.”

Fenn said complaints that Dean misspoke missed the point: nuance and speech are important.

“The Middle East is a tinderbox. He’s not a candidate for governor, not for state legislature — it’s real important for him to get it right,” said Fenn, who supports Lieberman.

“The Dean team should counsel him to come to grips with his use of language.”

Dean has acknowledged as much, and his supporters say he will be more careful about language.

“Answering a question in the backyard is not a way to explain Israel policy,” said Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, who is a close adviser to Dean.

“There will be no light” between Israel and the United States in a Dean administration, he said.

However brutish the debate, such exchanges can prove useful in clarifying positions and educating the candidates.

Dean’s willingness to learn is a positive outcome, and suggests he’ll pay better attention to nuance, said the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who wrote Dean asking for a clarification.

“When I first met Gov. Bush, we discussed a lot of issues and he said, ‘I hadn’t thought about that,'” Foxman recalled. “It’s a learning curve. Dean’s sensitivity, and his understanding that this caused a lot of anxiety, is what’s important.”

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