Who Has Kerry’s Ear?

Now that he’s running for president, Sen. John Kerry’s openness to a broad range of Jewish opinion is making some in the pro-Israel community nervous — and others hopeful.

The very quality that attracted Jewish voters to him as a longtime Massachusetts senator is now earning the candidate closer scrutiny across the Jewish spectrum.

Kerry’s Jewish supporters accurately cite his solid voting record in the Senate and his frequent readiness to meet leaders of Washington’s main pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

They also say he emulates President Clinton’s activist philosophy when it comes to Middle East peacemaking, an approach that won broad Jewish support during the Clinton presidency.

Detractors inevitably — and just as accurately — mention Kerry’s closeness to critics of U.S. foreign policy who say U.S. Middle East policy is a dog wagged by Israel’s tail. They include the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Joseph Wilson.

The variegated palette of advice Kerry has drawn upon over the years — and the fact that he ultimately keeps his own counsel — has made pinning down the candidate’s positions that much harder.

It’s one thing to see all sides of a question when you’re one voice out of 100 in the Senate, some pro-Israel officials in Washington say. When you’re the Democratic frontrunner, it’s another.

Now, as Kerry’s views, both foreign and domestic, are put under the microscope, the question abounds, as one pro-Israel official put it: "Where is he getting his advice?"

On the one hand, Kerry’s campaign has recruited Wilson, who has likened the legality of Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 to that of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Wilson also has said that close U.S.-Israel ties hinder U.S. engagement in the Arab world.

On the other hand, Kerry’s top foreign policy adviser is Rand Beers, a former top Bush counterterrorism adviser who made headlines last year when he quit because he said the war in Iraq was doing major harm to the war on terrorism.

Beers’ views on Israel are unknown, but he has said he believes the Saudis should do much more about support in Saudi Arabia for terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

And Kerry’s closest adviser, according to a profile published over the weekend in The New York Times, is his younger brother, Cameron, who converted to Judaism two decades ago when he married Kathy Weinman. Weinman’s family is active in the Detroit-area Jewish community and remains active in the Boston Jewish community.

Both Kerry brothers said they were surprised and pleased to learn last year of their own Jewish connections — through their paternal grandparents.

"The pattern of how he does things is to get as many opinions as he can," says Candy Glazier, a Kerry supporter from Longmeadow, Mass., who also is on AIPAC’s executive committee.

"He’ll listen to every side of the story, and he’ll make the final decision."

Seeking such diversity of opinion is in stark contrast to President Bush, who is much more likely to make foreign-policy decisions by relying on his advisers. These advisers include security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney — all of whom are seen as solidly in the pro-Israel camp.

Israel advocates across the political spectrum are quick to say that Kerry’s voting record is "stellar."

On the domestic issues Jews care about, Kerry’s record is unchallenged. He actually may be one of the few leading legislators who excites Orthodox and Reform Jews alike.

"He’s very good at navigating the waters of the diversity of the Jewish community — the Orthodox, the Reform, the Jewish defense organizations," said Nancy Kaufman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in Boston.

On his Boston staff, Kerry employs Joan Wasser, a graduate of the city’s Jewish day school system who is well-respected among Jews and who runs Jewish community outreach for Kerry. Her formal responsibilities are policy advice on education and senior issues, both areas of pronounced concern to the Jewish community.

Kerry’s record on church-state issues lands him solidly on the liberal side of the Jewish community. He opposes government aid to religious schools and for faith-based charities.

But his status as a powerful Democrat who has taken on teachers’ unions as overly powerful endears him to Orthodox Jews who advocate for greater parental voice in the schools.

Most outstanding for all sides has been Kerry’s lead role in trying to push through Congress the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which encourages employer flexibility in areas of religious observance. For Jews, this translates into easing Sabbath and holiday observance, and promoting acceptance of religious attire, such as yarmulkes, in the workplace.

"He has shown great sensitivity toward religion and religious minorities and religious observance," said Abba Cohen, who heads the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America, an organization that awarded Kerry its Religious Freedom Award in 2000.

Cohen said he was especially impressed that Kerry took on the workplace freedom initiative himself, not at anyone’s behest.

The senator was outraged after reading in a local newspaper that two devout Roman Catholic women were forced to work on Christmas.

"It’s definitely worthwhile saying he introduced the legislation on his own," Cohen said.

Yet it is that notion — on his own — that is now unnerving some pro-Israel activists who wonder how Kerry comes to his policy decisions.

For example, Kerry’s vision of how to jumpstart the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process has taken some in the pro-Israel community off guard. Particularly, Kerry cites negotiations in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 as a starting point for returning to the table.

"That’s not where we want to be," said one Jewish organizational official in Washington.

Taba represented the last-ditch effort by the Clinton administration and Israel’s Ehud Barak government to salvage the peace process after the launching of the Palestinian intifada.

The outline for a deal envisioned there, which would have set Israel back to its pre-1967 borders, alarmed many. It was vague about the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and critics said that it gave away too much to the Palestinians as a starting point for negotiation, rather than its culmination.

Another concern for pro-Israel activists is that, in private, Kerry is reported to have expressed dislike for Ariel Sharon, Israel’s two-term prime minister.

Some worry that Kerry might be taking advice from Yossi Beilin, the left-wing Israeli politician whose informal peace proposal, the "Geneva accord," mirrored the Taba talks.

People close to Beilin say the Geneva negotiators have met with Kerry no more than any other leading U.S. legislators — and they note that Kerry did not sign onto a non-binding "sense of the Senate" resolution this session that cites the Geneva proposal as positive.

Still, supporters of the Geneva initiative give Kerry high marks and note with approval the closeness to his campaign of Alan Solomont, a top Boston Jewish philanthropist who raises funds for Kerry and who is prominent in the Israel Policy Forum, which backs greater U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"An engaged president and an engaged United States is what would provide the greatest amount of security to Israel," said Ken Sweder, a past president of the Boston JCRC, who accompanied Kerry on a visit to Israel in 1986

For his part, it is likely that Kerry — who demonstrates an impressive command of foreign-policy issues — arrived at Taba as a launching point on his own.

That tendency to go it alone worries some admirers who wonder if Kerry will heed their advice as president.

"He has made statements that have been disturbing and indicate a lack of real understanding of some of the issues relating to Israel," said Cohen of Agudath Israel. Nonetheless, he calls Kerry’s record of support for Israel "exemplary."

Kerry’s suggestion that he would consider former President Carter and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as Middle East envoys has especially worried some in the pro-Israel community. Both Carter and Baker are unpopular among many pro-Israel activists. A top Jewish Kerry supporter, New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, told the Forward recently that Kerry has backed down from his intentions on appointing the pair envoys.

That has not stopped anonymous opponents from circulating e-mails citing the Baker and Carter references as a reason not to support Kerry.

Kerry’s supporters say the candidate will survive such attacks as it becomes clear that while he listens to a broad range of opinion, in the end he relies mostly on pro-Israel opinion, diverse as it is, in his assessments of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"I’m one of the people who call on his office," said Glazier, of AIPAC, "and he’ll come and meet with us personally. Most people will send their foreign policy adviser, but John takes quite a lot of time to take questions."

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Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.