Kerry Must Walk Mideast Tightrope

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), who claimed the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s convention in Boston last week, is almost certain to win a substantial majority of Jewish votes on Nov. 2. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have Jewish problems.

Paramount among them: how to convince a narrow segment of Jewish swing voters — many of them "security hawks" when it comes to Israel — that he can be a positive factor in the Middle East, without blundering into any of the myriad traps that await candidates who speak out on the issue.

President Bush enjoys a measure of inoculation from that problem by virtue of his incumbency; questions about his second-term Mideast policies can be brushed aside by pointing to the policies of his first.

The result: Kerry must traverse the minefield between saying too much and saying too little on explosive Middle East questions. The Bush-Cheney campaign will do its level best to make sure things blow up in his face.

At last week’s Democratic Convention, the Kerry strategy was obvious: provide basic reassurance to top Jewish leaders that the 19-year Senate veteran will be fine on Israel — so fine, in fact, that Jewish voters can turn their attention to domestic issues, where the Democrats enjoy a sizable advantage.

The campaign has opted for the minimalist approach to Mideast questions. Nothing will change in U.S. policy, they assure Jewish leaders, so let’s move on.

It’s a recognition that almost any details Kerry offers are certain to arouse the wrath of some segments of the Jewish community and play into Republican attempts to portray him as the spiritual heir to former President Jimmy Carter. It’s based on the reality that when it comes to the pro-Israel vote, it is increasingly the right-wing minority that seems to set the political benchmarks.

A solid majority of American Jews may favor a more energetic U.S. effort to bring peace to the region, but any candidate who dares spell out such policies is quickly branded hostile by pro-Israel hardliners — charges that have a surprising broad impact even with centrist Jewish voters.

But there are risks in Kerry’s effort to avoid details. It makes it easier for the Bush-Cheney campaign to define Kerry in the minds of pro-Israel voters. It allows them to effectively interpolate from Kerry’s other foreign policy goals — to say, for example, that his desire to work more effectively in international coalitions in places like Iraq will extend to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where he might give the Europeans — and even the unhelpful United Nations — a role. Too many details will inevitably generate noisy conflict; too few will lead some Jewish swing voters to ask this question: What is he hiding?

Bush is just as vague about his goals for a second administration, but he has a record as president. His entire pitch is this: If you want to know what I’ll do if reelected, just look at the past three and a half years.

Almost nobody believes that the current U.S. policy toward Israel will remain unchanged if Bush wins. There are too many international pressures on Washington to become more actively involved in Mideast peacemaking, and the administration cast of characters is certain to change.

But Bush’s strong record allows him to dodge uncomfortable questions like how he will seek to revive his stalled Mideast "road map." Bush has made the plan the centerpiece of his Mideast policy; by all accounts, it’s just on hold until after the election and until the Palestinian leadership crisis is resolved.

That doesn’t seem to bother hardline Jewish leaders who would react angrily if Kerry openly talked about the same goals — the quick creation of a Palestinian state and a quick evacuation of most Israeli settlements.

For Bush, vagueness about his Mideast plans is a win-win situation as he vies for a narrow segment of Jewish swing voters who like his past support for Ariel Sharon. For Kerry, vagueness makes sense — but there are risks if he is too vague, allowing the Republicans to claim he’s just another Democrat eager to pressure Israel.

This isn’t to say Kerry is an underdog with Jewish voters. Far from it. His advantages on the domestic front maybe be growing as the Bush-Cheney campaign tries to mollify evangelical voters who complain he hasn’t done enough on issues like school prayer, gay rights and abortion. The more Bush plays to shore up that critical bloc, the more Jews will turn away from his candidacy, no matter how much they like his Israel policies.

But to hold on to a substantial portion of the small slice of the Jewish vote that’s actually in play this year — many experts estimate it at between 5 percent and 10 percent — Kerry has to find new ways to lay out specific Mideast goals without falling off the tightrope.