Presidential hopefuls scrutinized on Israel

The Democratic presidential candidates’ attitude toward Israel is undergoing the same sort of word-by-word examination that was such an important feature of the 2004 campaign.

With the California presidential primary moved up to Feb. 5, pollsters are closely watching us Angelenos, with our large and active Jewish community. They also have an eye on Jewish New Yorkers, who have a primary on the same day.

Meanwhile, candidates are being examined as well. The most interesting study is by Shmuel Rosner, Washington correspondent for the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, who does a weekly feature, “The Israel Factor: Ranking the presidential candidates.” He has assembled a panel of Israeli political observers who rank the candidates — announced and potential — on a “best for Israel” scale, with one being the worst and 10 the best.

Some of the latest rankings are: Rudy Giuliani, 8.63; John McCain, 7.5; Newt Gingrich, 7.38; Hillary Clinton, 7.13; Al Gore 6.88; Bill Richardson, 6.75; John Edwards, 6; Barak Obama 5.5.

It’s not surprising that the Israelis put the Republicans on top. The Republican candidates support President Bush and the Iraq War, in line with the more hawkish Israeli sentiment.

In 2004, Republicans sought to portray the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry and his running mate, Edwards, as soft on Israel. Jewish Republicans took the lead in the effort.

Fairly new to The Journal at that time, I felt a huge obligation to dig deep into the effort. I chased Jewish Republicans from West Los Angeles to the West Valley, and, by Election Day, I sort of believed a lot of Jews would vote for the GOP.

I was wrong. The Solomon Project’s analysis of the national Jewish electorate reported that “the Jewish two-party vote in 2004 was 29 percent more Democratic than the national two-party vote. The number has been remarkably stable over the last three presidential elections.”

The survey showed the Republicans made headway among Jews who attend synagogue at least weekly and among Jewish men under 30. But on the whole, the survey said Jewish Americans overwhelmingly identify themselves as liberal or moderate. Somewhere between 13 percent and 18 percent of Jews identify themselves as conservative.”

The 2008 election is beginning to repeat the 2004 pattern. So far, Obama and Edwards, both down in the Rosner rankings, provide the best examples of how each Democratic word on Israel is subject to minute analysis, ready to be pounced on by Republicans.

Campaigning in Iowa, Obama said that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people” from the failure of peace talks. Then, during the Democratic presidential debate when he was asked to name America’s top allies, he omitted Israel.

“I didn’t hear you mention Israel, ” said the moderator, Brian Williams of NBC. And he asked Obama if he stood behind his statement about the suffering of the Palestinians.

“What I said is, nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region,” he replied. “Israel has been one of our most important allies around the world.”

Edwards has been getting the same parsing treatment ever since Variety columnist Peter Bart wrote this account of his appearance at a Hollywood reception: “The aggressively photogenic John Edwards was cruising along, detailing his litany of liberal causes last week until, during question time, he invoked the ‘I’ word — Israel. Perhaps the greatest short-term threat to world peace, Edwards remarked, was the possibility that Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. As a chill descended on the gathering, the Edwards event was brought to a polite close.”

Edwards’ campaign said Bart got it wrong. “The Jan. 19 Variety article is erroneous,” said Edwards spokesman Jonathan Prince. “Sen. Edwards said, as he has in the past, that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is one of the greatest short-term threats to world peace.”

Still, the Bart column roared through the right- wing blogosphere.

Actually, as Ha’aretz correspondent Rosner wrote, the Democratic candidates are solidly pro Israel, as are the Republicans.

He said, “The candidates are rallying and promising that they will not allow Israel to be harmed, competing with one another by offering demonstrations of affection and boasting of a perfect voting record.”

This year, with the Democratic candidates favoring withdrawal from Iraq, Republicans are making a great effort to equate support for the Iraq War with loyalty to Israel. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, condemned those who favor “acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened.”

I don’t think most of the Jewish community will buy the Cheney line, just as it didn’t in 2004. Polls show most Jews oppose the war.

And this time, when I cover stories about Republican plans to win Jewish votes on the Israel issue, I will bring more skepticism along with my notebook.