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|Bush Stance Pleases U.S. Jewish Groups|
|04/04/02 at 15:24:44|
Bush Stance Pleases U.S. Jewish Groups
Initially Skeptical, Pro-Israel Lobbyists Say They Are 'Pleasantly Surprised'
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 4, 2002; Page A14
President Bush's stalwart support of Israel is winning effusive praise from major organizations representing American Jews, who voted against Bush in overwhelming numbers 17 months ago.
Several leading pro-Israel lobbyists said they have concluded that Bush is profoundly, personally sympathetic to Israel. They attributed that sympathy to the president's religious outlook, his inclination to think in terms of good and evil, and a trip he took to Israel in late 1998.
"Friends of Israel feel a sense of deep appreciation for the stance that the administration, led by the president, is taking at this moment of crisis," said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the linchpin of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. "If you back up and say, was this the expectation that most people in the Jewish community had for this administration at the time it took office, the answer would be: probably not," he added.
Exit polls from the 2000 presidential election showed that about 80 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), reflecting a longstanding Democratic tilt among Jews as well as the presence of a Jew on a major-party presidential ticket for the first time.
As the Bush administration came into office, Jewish groups had several reasons for wondering what its attitude toward Israel would be. Bush and his running mate, Richard B. Cheney, had attacked President Bill Clinton for excessive personal engagement in efforts to make peace in the Middle East. The Republican candidates also had close ties to oil interests, and they had courted Arab American voters in cities such as Detroit.
Most of all, Jewish groups recalled the first Bush administration, which was perceived in Israel as the least supportive U.S. administration since Dwight D. Eisenhower's.
Acknowledging that early skepticism, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that "people have been reassured by the president's actions, by statements from . . . others in the administration, that U.S. policy is not one of disengagement but one of appropriate engagement."
In recent days, AIPAC and other Jewish groups have issued statements cheering the Bush administration's stand, especially its calls for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to do more to stop terrorism and the president's statement Saturday, "I fully understand Israel's need to defend herself."
Earlier, these organizations also applauded the administration for adding Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the State Department's list of terrorist groups, as well as for the U.S. decision not to send a high-level delegation to the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance because it was considering a draft resolution equating Zionism with racism.
In January, AIPAC praised the president's State of the Union address for his reference to Iraq and Iran as part of an "axis of evil." And, Kohr said, "it is not lost on our community that the foreign leader who has been more times to the White House than any other" is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while Arafat has not been invited even once since Bush took office.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he "knew this was going to be a president whom Israel could count on" because he had accompanied Bush on a visit to Israel at the end of 1998. During that trip, Sharon took Bush on a helicopter ride to point out Israel's security problems. "Not only did those two men form a special bond, but the president has said repeatedly since then that if you look at the 1967 lines, there are parts of Israel that are only eight miles wide and there are driveways in Texas that are longer than that," Brooks said.
Kohr said he believes Bush's "deep personal feelings about Israel . . . have a connection to his own religious beliefs about Israel, about good and evil, that infuse all the things he's been doing since September 11th."
Some Jewish activists find the praise a bit over the top. "Look, when you have an incumbent president, almost no matter who it is, the Jewish groups are going to want to say good things about him, especially when you're vying for access to the White House," said a pro-Israel lobbyist who declined to be quoted by name.
Some pro-Democratic Jewish groups also have criticized the administration, primarily for a lack of steady engagement in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process but also for mixed signals. On one hand, the White House has placed the onus on Arafat to prevent terrorism. On the other, the State Department periodically has condemned Israel for excessive force and the United States has supported U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to pull back from Palestinian cities.
"It's true that some in the Jewish community are pleasantly surprised by how the president has handled the U.S.-Israel relationship," said William B. Dockser, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "But there is also some real concern in the community that this administration is a bit schizophrenic -- that the White House and the State Department don't have their acts together."
Dovish groups, though overshadowed in Washington by such powerful organizations as AIPAC, contend that many Jews are upset with both the Sharon government in Israel and the Bush administration.
"There's a huge outpouring of popular energy, a huge moral upset, at what Israel is doing and at the failure of the Bush administration to do anything but covertly encourage Ariel Sharon with these wimpy little statements about using restraint," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun and a founder of a liberal alternative to AIPAC called the Tikkun Community. "We argue that the best way to be pro-Israel at this moment is to give Israel some tough love, and to tell Israel that it must withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and allow the Palestinians to create their own state," he said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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