Bush Says Magic Word: Israel
What’s in a word?
President Bush one-upped John Kerry by uttering the word "Israel" in his speech Sept. 2 accepting the Republican presidential nomination, but it’s unclear whether the simple mention of the Jewish state will have any effect on Jewish voters.
"Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel," Bush said to loud applause from delegates at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Speculation was rampant for weeks that Bush would speak of Israel, largely because Sen. Kerry (D-Mass.) did not when he accepted the Democratic nomination in July.
There also was talk that Bush would speak about international anti-Semitism to catch the attention of undecided Jewish voters.
But in the end Bush said nothing more than Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), did in his Boston convention speech, when Edwards suggested that a change of president would bring the world to America’s side and ensure "a safe and secure Israel."
As the campaigns move toward the final stretch, each believes it has the stronger message to the Jewish community and anticipates making a thorough effort to reach what is considered an important voting bloc.
Republicans have been touting inroads into the Jewish community this election season, and the buzz at the Republican convention focused on how larger numbers of Jews are likely to back Bush for four more years. By making only a perfunctory reference to the Jewish state in his speech, some say, Bush may have missed an opportunity to woo Jewish voters.
Nonetheless, Republican Jews were gratified by Bush’s comment, suggesting that the mere mention of Israel — in an address where every word is carefully considered — was important.
"The silence of John Kerry in his acceptance speech says a lot to the Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). Brooks said presidential candidates’ speeches are closely analyzed, while speeches by vice presidential candidates such as Edwards are of secondary importance.
Jewish Republicans said Bush’s comments had to be seen in the larger framework of the convention, which included formal Jewish outreach events by the campaign, an appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney at an RJC event and significant comments about Israel and Jews in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s convention speech.
Giuliani was the key conduit to the Jewish community, using his Aug. 30 speech to attack Kerry’s record in the Middle East.
"In October of 2003 he told an Arab-American Institute in Detroit that a security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories was a ‘barrier to peace,’ " Giuliani said. "OK. Then a few months later, he took exactly the opposite position. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post he said, ‘Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense.’"
Giuliani also referred to the 1972 terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, in which a paralyzed Jewish American passenger was thrown into the sea.
Democrats downplayed Bush’s Israel reference.
"It’s window dressing," said Jay Footlik, the Kerry campaign’s senior adviser on Middle East and Jewish affairs. "If I were the Republicans, I would be talking up Israel as well in an attempt to draw support from our community."
Footlik said he felt voters weren’t counting who had said the word "Israel" more, but were taking a more sophisticated look at the candidates’ policies.
The battle for the Jewish vote likely will resemble a football game for the next two months, as Republicans work on offense to raise Jewish support and the Democrats play defense to maintain levels of Jewish support they traditionally have enjoyed.
Based on recent polls, Democratic operatives appear confident that the shift of Jewish voters to Bush is not as profound as Republicans have suggested. After Labor Day, they believe, the conversation will shift back to domestic policy, where Kerry has an advantage in the Jewish community.
They also note that they have had only several months to showcase Kerry to a national Jewish audience, while Bush has had almost four years.
But some advisers in the Democratic camp are urging Kerry and Edwards to say more about Israel and the Middle East, believing Kerry’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League in May did not do enough to prove his understanding of Israel. The Kerry campaign reportedly is receptive to calls from the community for Kerry or Edwards to do more outreach out to Jews.
Republicans acknowledge that they have had an easier argument to make to the Jewish community this election cycle, preaching "conversion" rather than working to prevent "converts." They also seem to have the support of the upper echelons of the campaign, including campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, as they tout issues of concern to the community at high-profile events.
Both sides say grass-roots efforts in key battleground states with significant Jewish populations — such as Florida, Ohio and Michigan — will be the focus for the rest of the campaign. Advertisements geared toward the Jewish community, and spending efforts from advocates for both candidates, are expected to start soon.