Bush tries to reach out to Jewish voters President cites his 'overall record'

September 09, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, refusing to concede the traditionally Democratic and potentially embittered Jewish vote, argued yesterday that he's been a better friend to Israel than his opponent Bill Clinton could ever be.

With his re-election campaign now a daily struggle for every possible vote, Mr. Bush could not resist making what he considers a good case for a significant share of support from the nation's 5.5 million Jews, many of whom are concentrated in such battleground states as California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.

"I know we've had some differences," the president said in an address to the B'nai B'rith International Convention, where he repeated an earlier apology for what appeared to be a swipe last year at Jewish lobbying groups. "But I hope you'll look at this overall record."

The president cited the launching of the Middle East peace talks, the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the repeal of the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism and the belated promise of $10 billion in housing loan guarantees for Israeli immigrants among his contributions to a safer, more secure Jewish homeland.

Mr. Bush also warned the leadership of the international Jewish service organization that Mr. Clinton, a governor with no foreign policy experience, is not prepared to make the difficult decisions essential to maintaining global security.

He quoted Mr. Clinton as saying he guessed he would have voted with the majority of Congress in authorizing military force against Iraq but that he agreed with the arguments made by the minority that opposed it.

"Ask yourself where we would be if we had someone in the Oval Office who would have waffled, who would have wavered and wanted to have it both ways" when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mr. Bush said. "I'll tell you: We'd be facing a nuclear-armed Iraq . . . an Iraq threatening Israel's very existence . . . and we'd be talking about whether there was any chance to avoid nuclear Armageddon in the Middle East."

The Clinton campaign issued a statement noting it was just a year ago when Mr. Bush unleashed "an unprecedented attack on the constitutional right of Americans to petition our government." At a White House news conference, Mr. Bush called himself "one lonely little guy" doing battle against "something like a thousand lobbyists" pressing for the loan guarantees.

"Less than sixty days before the election, George Bush is trying to convince the American Jewish community he's been on their side for the last four years," the Clinton campaign said. "It won't sell."

The president was warmly received by the B'nai B'rith yesterday, especially when he announced he was sending to Capitol Hill the legislation to make available the $10 billion in housing loan guarantees he had held up for nearly a year because the previous Israeli government refused to stop building settlements in the occupied territories.

But two questions from the audience suggested why he may have trouble regaining even the 30 percent of the Jewish vote he won in 1988. One dealt with the sour state of the U.S. economy and the other with his anticipated decision to sell F-15 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia in order to provide jobs for the American aircraft industry.

With Jewish voters as with most other Americans, "I think it will be economic factors that will make the greatest impact on the choices that are made," said Shoshana Cardin of Baltimore, chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

The grim national outlook on the economy is Mr. Bush's great weakness in this election campaign, and he said yesterday he worries that the pessimism is making the problem worse.

While maintaining he had not yet made a final decision about the sale of F-15s to the Saudis, whose nation still is technically at war with Israel, Mr. Bush argued that he had to consider "the domestic economy" and made clear the arms sale was in the offing.

He noted Mr. Clinton has already announced his support for it in Missouri, the political battleground state where the planes are made.

Bush aides say they are working hard to prepare the Jewish community for the prospect of the arms sale, and Mr. Bush promised he would maintain Israel's "qualitative edge" in defense weaponry.

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