What Dean Said

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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Howard Dean carries a lot of baggage with him to his new post as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Coming fresh from his failed presidential bid last year, he brings far more visibility and authority to the post than his predecessors did. He will be in a position to offer real leadership to a party painfully lacking on that score. At the same time, he’ll be in the curious role of trying to lead a party that rejected him a year ago.

Even more complicated than Dean’s position is his tone. His presidential campaign won a passionate following with its combative message, embodied in the claim that he represented the “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party. That fighting spirit could light some badly needed fire in the listless party. But it will complicate his efforts to rally other leaders and factions whose bona fides he implicitly impugned a year ago. It’s a tricky juggle.

Whatever one thinks of Dean’s tone, though, it is absurd to suggest, as some Republicans were doing this week, that he will somehow undermine Democratic support for Israel. That charge is at the center of a new ad campaign launched this week by the Republican Jewish Coalition, featuring a photo of Hamas suicide bombers topped by a September 2003 quote from Dean, “It’s not our place to take sides.” His words had brought a host of angry retorts at the time from other Democrats — dutifully reprinted in the GOP ad — and led him to backtrack within hours. Dean’s allies now explain the statement as a case of foreign-affairs inexperience. They also recall dozens of other Dean statements, before and since, demonstrating strong, consistent support for Israel and a hard line on fighting terrorism.

To give Dean’s critics their due, Middle East politics in America involves atmospherics as much as substance. Dean’s presidential campaign, built on opposition to President Bush’s Iraq policy, became a rallying point for an army of anti-war activists, including some with alarmingly anti-Israel views. Dean didn’t share their opinions, but he didn’t work as hard as he might have to distance himself. As he enters his new role, he’d do well to make it clear that he’s not bringing those distasteful ex-allies with him to the party.

That said, the flurry around the GOP ad obscures a more basic question: What was Dean actually saying in that September 2003 remark? In fact, his “don’t take sides” statement — seen in its now-forgotten context — was a reasonable response to a specific question about whether and how to encourage Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at a time of resurgent terrorism. Two weeks earlier, a devastating Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem had claimed 22 lives and shattered a summer-long cease-fire. Israelis were furiously debating whether to continue relations with the fledgling Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. By mid-September the government of Ariel Sharon had decided to cut off dialogue. Abbas quit in disgust soon after.

Within weeks a host of top Israelis began stepping forward to demand, in terms far more sweeping than Dean’s, that Israel reach out to the Palestinian side. First came a scathing group statement in October by all four living ex-chiefs of the Shin Bet security service. Next came Israel’s military chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, who charged in an interview and then a speech that Israel’s punitive response had worsened terrorism and torpedoed Abbas, Israel’s best hope for a reasonable dialogue partner. Finally, in late December, Sharon decided to outflank the conciliators by rolling out his plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

All this while the American political system was frantically working to stamp out any hint of original Middle East thinking in this country.

Dean might have been naive in thinking he could bring the subtlety of Middle East diplomatic debate into the overheated atmosphere of American presidential politics last year. If so, his naiveté is trumped by the cynicism of his Republican critics right now in seeking to draw a visual link between Dean and the suicide bombers. The new GOP ads recall nothing so much as the placards depicting Yitzhak Rabin in an Arab headdress, which were brandished by the Israeli right in the months before Rabin was assassinated.

With tempers in Israeli and American Jewish circles approaching the boiling point in advance of the planned Gaza withdrawal, that sort of inflammatory imagery should be off limits. The Republican coalition should withdraw the ad and apologize.

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