Candidates reticent on Mideast

SUN JOURNAL

Policy: Despite the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush and Kerry have had little to say about it.

October 14, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For all their sharp differences on terrorism, Iraq and cooperation with allies, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry allow barely a sliver of daylight to appear between them on an issue that touches all three: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The conflict is widely seen to dovetail with a variety of American interests in the Middle East: Al-Qaida militants draw support from the hostility of young Arabs toward Israel; Iran, a sworn enemy of the Jewish state, is suspected of developing nuclear weapons; and Arab leaders use the continuing conflict as an excuse for delaying reforms to their political systems and economies.

The campaign's near-silence on the Middle East obscures what some analysts believe will be a major challenge for the next president as he tries to combat terrorism, stabilize Iraq, defuse the nuclear danger from Iran and inspire political reform and economic progress throughout the region - all while stemming the rise of anti-American sentiments.

"I think both candidates would rather avoid the issue during the campaign, but that is just politics. The United States cannot permit the status quo to stand, especially as we try to find some way out of the Iraq situation," said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes a strong U.S. role in peacemaking.

Kerry says he would be more deeply involved in seeking an end to the 56-year conflict, which since September 2000 has exploded in a cycle of attacks and reprisals that has killed more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians.

Beyond that, the two camps' stated positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are nearly identical. Both are staunch supporters of Israel who call Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat an unfit peace partner. Both give broad leeway to Israel in fighting terrorism. This includes construction of a separation barrier, if it doesn't stake out future borders.

Both also support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announced intention to withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank. Both say Israel need not return to its pre-1967 boundaries or accept a right of return by Palestinians to Israel.

And both are reluctant at this stage to put forward a detailed peace plan that attempts to meet each side's needs on land and security.

The similarities appear to benefit Kerry in limiting Bush's gains among Jewish voters, a traditional Democratic support base with liberal views on domestic social issues. Some had predicted Bush could win as much as 30 percent of the Jewish vote, up from his 19 percent in 2000.

Instead, he stands to gain 24 percent against Kerry's 69 percent, according to a poll conducted in late August for the American Jewish Committee. But even an added 5 percentage-point margin could be important for Bush in a razor-thin election because Jews historically vote in high numbers and are represented heavily in such swing states as Florida and Ohio.

Digging beneath the surface, supporters of the two candidates see major differences in approach.

Bush champions see in his invasion of Iraq and determination to spread democracy through the Arab world a new set of priorities, connecting America's ideological battle against extremism and rogue regimes to Israel's struggle against Palestinian militants. They applaud the president's refusal to pressure Sharon to negotiate or freeze settlements until the Palestinians act on their own to prevent attacks on Israelis and develop new leaders free of corruption and ties to terrorists.

Former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch, a Democrat who is backing Bush, said, "There's no question that George W. Bush ... is the most supportive president in terms of support for Israel and its security needs." Koch particularly praised Bush's repeated vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions that criticize Israel.

He recalled with distaste Kerry's suggestion early this year - which Kerry has since backed away from - that he might tap former President Jimmy Carter or former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, an appointee of the elder Bush, as a special envoy to the region. Both men exerted pressure on Israeli governments.

Kerry backers see a candidate who would put diplomacy to work - personally and by picking a top envoy - in trying to end the conflict, boosting Israel's long-term security and combatting the anti-Western hostility that fuels terrorism.

"If you look at the levels of violence and the costs to Israelis and Palestinians, there has been enormous, horrendous loss of life. It seems to us that we need to be more engaged and involved to reduce the level of violence," said Rand Beers, a top Kerry national security aide.

Bush, Kerry aides say, was wrong in believing that toppling Saddam Hussein could change the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

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