‘Map’ Won’t Play Key Election Role

Opponents of the recently released Mideast "road map" are reassuring themselves that presidential politics will keep the Bush administration from pressuring Israel too hard to accept the plan, which proposes a diplomatic sprint to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

They may be living in a dream world. Concerns about the road map’s electoral impact may be only a minor factor as President Bush cautiously wades into the treacherous Mideast cross-currents.

Bush is not worried about losing Jewish votes, mostly because he doesn’t have that many to lose, and the president’s problems with evangelical Christians, a pillar of his political base, are primarily domestic. Some Christian leaders may squawk if the road map moves into high gear, but few evangelical votes will take a detour on Election Day, 2004.

The Jewish part of the equation isn’t exactly rocket science. For months, pundits and political spinmeisters have been predicting that 2004 could mark the start of the long-predicted, never-materialized Jewish shift to the GOP. The administration’s desire to see that happen as Bush fights for a second term, some predict, will keep him from pushing too hard for a Mideast plan that the big pro-Israel groups here distrust.

However, the numbers tell a different story. If the current warmth in U.S.-Israel relations continues, Bush could do significantly better with Jewish voters this time than he did in 2000, when he won just 19 percent — especially if the Democratic nominee is perceived as soft on Israel.

However, even the most optimistic Republicans don’t predict a wholesale change on Election Day. Jewish voters may appreciate the administration’s strong support for Israel and its war on terrorism, but too many worry about the president’s domestic agenda and his close connection to controversial religious conservatives.

Even a 10-point shift in favor of the GOP could be important in Florida, but it is unlikely to play much of a role anywhere else. The Republicans may be more successful in wooing Jewish campaign contributors. However, a sharp confrontation with Jerusalem could put a crimp on the GOP’s Jewish fundraising.

The president’s re-election coffers are flush with money, and an outright confrontation with Jerusalem seems unlikely, given Bush’s sympathetic view of the current Israeli government. So under most scenarios, Jewish giving is unlikely to change dramatically, even if the new U.S. push includes moderate pressure on Israel.

Bush has much more to fear from disaffected Christian conservatives, a much bigger voting bloc and a critical part of his support base. He needs their enthusiastic support not just for his own election, but to keep both houses of Congress in Republican hands.

Mideast policy is a growing priority for this political segment. Many evangelical leaders actively support the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and will oppose new U.S. pressure on issues like settlements and quick Palestinian statehood.

Some openly share the nationalistic view of Israel’s settlers — that Gaza and the West Bank are inherent part of God’s bequest to the Jews. But those issues are not nearly as important to the evangelical rank and file as a host of domestic concerns, including abortion, faith-based government programs, school prayer and the fight against homosexual rights.

In recent weeks, several evangelical leaders have signaled intense dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. But the object of their ire wasn’t the Mideast road map. Instead, they were furious that the White House had not jumped to the defense of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), whose harsh comments about homosexual rights produced a firestorm of controversy. Fighting homosexual rights is a core issue for many politically active evangelicals — much more than Mideast politics.

Threats by some evangelical leaders to sit on the sidelines in 2004 are "not credible," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, adding, "Most conservative Christians are very happy with Bush."

In the weeks and months to come, the president is likely to take steps to solidify their support. He is almost certain to ratchet up further the effort to implement much of his faith-based agenda through executive action and legislation. In addition, he may choose to become more active in the fight for school vouchers.

Administration action on the road map is likely to be a nonfactor for most conservative Christian voters, however much some of their leaders complain.

Bottom line: Jews worried about new pressure on Israel as the road map discussions begin in earnest shouldn’t expect presidential politics to play a restraining role on Bush.

The real unknown as the new initiative gets underway is this: Is Bush genuinely committed to the plan or is he acting on the road map only because of international pressure? If it’s the latter, Sharon has little to worry about.

And will the Europeans and the Arab nations do their part to force an end to Palestinian terrorism? If they do, Bush is likely to press ahead regardless of political factors. But history suggests they will shun that responsibility; in that case, the road map may lead to yet another Mideast dead end.