Dean Plans To Visit Israel, Political Baggage in Tow

By E.J. Kessler

Published July 08, 2005, issue of July 08, 2005.
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In his first trip to the Middle East as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean will be traveling to Israel this fall with a Jewish organization.

Dean, who became the DNC chairman in February, will take the six-day trip in September with the National Jewish Democratic Council. Democrats are noting that the September trip is coming at a critical time in the Middle East, just after Israel is scheduled to have completed its disengagement from Gaza.

“Governor Dean will build on the tradition of Democratic party chairs visiting Israel, where he’ll experience firsthand the important changes in the region since he last visited three years ago,” said Matt Dorf, the consultant who is organizing the trip from the DNC’s end.

Then-DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe visited Israel in 2002 as the guest of the Jewish Democratic council. The upcoming trip will be the second such visit for Dean, who in 2002, at the outset of his presidential run, toured Israel with an arm of lobbying powerhouse the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Dean “feels a strong desire to bring his knowledge and understanding of the Middle East up to date and further strengthen his relations with the Jewish community,” said Aipac President Steve Grossman, who will lead the delegation going to Israel with Dean. Grossman, a former DNC chairman, was chairman of Dean’s presidential campaign.

Dean, who has opposed the Iraq War since its inception, comes to the trip with a certain amount of baggage regarding Israel questions. He told the Forward before his 2002 Israel trip that his view of the Middle East conflict was “closer to Aipac’s view” than to that of dovish groups such as Peace Now.

But some of his statements during the campaign — when he rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to become the Democratic frontrunner for a time — seemed to indicate that he was taking a more neutralist view of the conflict.

During the summer of 2003, Dean said that “it is not our place to take sides” and that America should be “an evenhanded broker” in Middle East negotiations — formulations that reminded some Jewish Democrats of the views of former president Jimmy Carter, a disliked figure in many pro-Israel circles.

Whether Dean made the comments intentionally or out of ignorance — he claimed to be unfamiliar with certain Washington code words — his Democratic-primary opponents, Senator John Kerry and Senator Joseph Lieberman, seized on the comments to portray Dean as a foreign policy novice unsympathetic to the American-Israel “special relationship.” When Dean acceded to the party chairmanship, Republicans, in turn, used the Democratic criticisms to launch their own attack on him.

Since becoming chairman, Dean has moved to allay any questions regarding his support for Israel.

In a speech before Aipac’s policy conference in May, Dean vowed that “Israel’s fight against terrorism is also America’s fight” and promised that “when it comes to American support for Israel and its security, there are no critical differences between Democrats and the president.” He called Prime Minister Sharon, whose policies are popular in the Jewish community, a “bold” leader for seeking the disengagement. Last month, after anti-war pamphleteers distributed fliers alleging Israeli complicity in the Iraq war and foreknowledge of the September 11, 2001, attacks at a Democratic hearing on the Iraq War, Dean condemned the literature as “vile, antisemitic rhetoric.”

“Thoughtful, smart, savvy people in the pro-Israel community have indicated to me, ‘I hear very good things about what Howard Dean has said and done,’” Grossman said. “Whatever effort the Republicans have [taken] to discredit Howard Dean — which they did from the first day he was party chair — the relationship with the American Jewish community remains strong and robust. Some people have said, ‘He said some things during the campaign that disturbed me, but I have had very few people say, ‘Sorry, I’m not interested.’”

Still, some Democrats remain skeptical.

“He came into the chairmanship with a couple of black marks against him in the Jewish community,” said Dan Gerstein, a Dean critic who was Lieberman’s communications director. “It’s smart to try to address those doubts and concerns, but it remains to be seen whether this is an effort to win back trust or a cosmetic, symbolic gesture.”

Dean plans to meet with a range of notables on the trip, including senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As Grossman said, given Dean’s emphasis on tending to the Democratic grass roots, a number of Democratic state chairmen would be invited to attend.

On a personal note, Dean, who practices Congregationalism, a liberal form of Protestantism, has evinced some of the sentimental Zionism common among American Jews. Dean’s wife, Judith Steinberg, and children are Jewish, and he credits Steinberg’s Russian-born grandmother with instilling in him a “visceral” attachment to the Jewish state.

“Israel is an important part of what it means to be a Jew,” he told the Forward in a 2002 interview. “It must never be overrun and eliminated.”

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