A Look at Dean’s Jewish Problem

Question: What’s behind Howard Dean’s ongoing problems in
the Jewish community?

Answer: No-holds-barred partisanship, especially among the
anonymous attackers who are clogging the e-mail inboxes of Jewish leaders
around the country, warning — without much evidence — that Dean would somehow
be bad for Israel.

But the bitter attacks are having an impact; a frequently
heard comment, at least in Jewish activist circles, is that many Jews who have
voted Democratic all their lives will vote for Bush if Dean wins his party’s

And Dean himself may be contributing to his Jewish problem
by publicly modeling himself after a former president once widely applauded by
the Jewish community, but who now is seen by many as a living symbol of their
disillusionment with a failed peace process.

But the fact that this is first and foremost an
ideology-driven, heavily partisan campaign is evident in the glaring double
standard: Dean is trashed for a handful of ill-chosen words, while President
Bush’s dramatic changes in Mideast policy — which have caused anxiety and anger
in official circles in Israel — have been mostly ignored.

Almost all of the anti-Dean campaign stems from his
off-the-cuff remark at a New Mexico barbecue that the United States shouldn’t
“take sides” in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Dean was rightly skewered for that comment, and not just by
the far right. The alliance with Israel is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the
region and a vital element in Israel’s security.

But the candidate quickly retreated. He pledged fealty to
that special relationship, and explained that his comments were the result of
an insufficient understanding of some of the code words attached to the Middle
East controversy.

In communities across the country, his “take no sides”
remark continues to generate anger, despite his persistent clarifications, but
there is resounding silence about his rivals. More revealing is the silence
about Bush, who in 2002 became the first president to openly advocate creation
of a Palestinian state.

Bush demanded quick action on the international “road map”
to Palestinian statehood, against the wishes of the Sharon government; he has
applied strong pressure on Israel because of its security fence, and his
administration punished Israel by cutting desperately needed loan guarantees.
Just this week, his State Department angrily criticized Israel for not doing
enough to resume negotiations.

This week, Dean was being criticized for embracing the
unofficial Geneva accord. Somehow lost was the fact that the Bush
administration has shown a strong interest in the plan, even meeting with its
authors, despite angry protests by the Sharon government.

Still, there is an emerging conventional wisdom in Jewish
leadership circles that Bush is somehow good for Israel, Dean is bad.

That glaring double standard is no accident. The attacks on
Dean — mostly anonymous — come from ideologues who wouldn’t vote for any
Democratic candidate, no matter how pro-Israel.

These Jewish conservatives will forgive any sin by the
Republican president, even something that violates their creed like the demand
for quick action on Palestinian statehood — but the slightest rhetorical slip
by a Democrat will be taken as irrefutable proof of unfitness for leadership in
this volatile area.

But the anti-Dean mud seems to be sticking, worrying Dean
strategists. One reason is simply that for many Jewish voters, their first
exposure to the former Vermont governor was his September blunder, when he
spoke of more balance in U.S. Mideast policy.

In politics, first impressions are vital; Dean came across
as Jimmy Carter-ish, and that won’t be easily overcome.

The Dean reaction is also related to the angry
disillusionment many in Israel — and many pro-Israel activists here — feel with
the Oslo peace process.

Three years ago, former President Bill Clinton was widely
described as the most pro-Israel president ever, despite the bitter criticisms
of extreme anti-Oslo activists.

But with the breakdown of that peace process and relentless
violence, more mainstream Jews are willing to accept the view that Clinton was
too willing to negotiate away Israel’s security to win an agreement.

Dean has deliberately patterned himself after Clinton on
Mideast matters — something that might have helped four years ago, but which
could be hurting with Jewish leaders and activists in the harsher, post-Oslo
environment of 2004.