CAMPAIGN CONFIDENTIAL

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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Clap, Clap (Grumble, Grumble): President Bush got more than 20 standing ovations during his speech this week at the annual policy conference of Aipac, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse. At one point he was interrupted by a lengthy chant of “four more years,” prompting Aipac president Amy Friedkin, a Democrat, to joke to Bush that she “ought to let Bernice” — Aipac president-elect Bernice Manocherian — “take over this part of the program.” Observers from both parties estimated that the chanters represented about half the crowd.

Still, participants at the mammoth Washington, D.C., conclave also found what to grouse about. Some had hoped to hear the president repeat the assurances he gave publicly last month to Prime Minister Sharon that Israel’s demographic realities precluded a retreat to the 1949 armistice lines and that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state — not to Israel. At least one Bush adviser had hinted last week that the speech likely would contain such assurances, but the promises were conspicuously absent. The speech instead dwelled on the president’s vision of America and Israel as sister democracies and brothers-in-arms in the war on terror — crowd-pleasing stuff filled with references to Bush’s “resolve” and blasting terrorists as “hateful men” who “kill without shame,” but not the meat of policy.

It also did not mention Saudi antisemitism or the recent antisemitic remarks of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah — a concern to community leaders, since Saudis fund so much Islamic extremism — but instead spoke generically of “calling upon Arab governments to end libels and incitements.” In a May 17 letter, Senator Charles Schumer of New York called on Bush to use his Aipac speech to condemn the Saudi regime for fostering such sentiment. (For more on the conference and Bush’s speech, please see the story on Page 1.)

But if there was some dissatisfaction beneath the largely positive reaction to Bush’s remarks, there also was grumbling over the rhetoric of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. (Kerry was not at the conference, since it is Aipac’s custom not to invite the challenger to a sitting president.) In the halls of the conference, the Forward heard numerous calls for “stronger language” from Kerry on Israel and terror. Kerry also apparently has yet to repair the self-inflicted damage from a speech last December in which he named former President Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker — two fellows highly unpopular with pro-Israel activists — as possible Middle East envoys. While Kerry since has retracted that remark, blaming it on a staff mistake, many at the conference still were faulting him. Others said they felt cheated by a recent Kerry speech to the Anti-Defamation League, a feel-good pastiche of anecdotes that the campaign had intended to show their man possesses a gut understanding of Israel’s dilemmas, but that did not satisfy the policy hungry.

On the Democratic side, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman delivered a speech to the conference that seemed designed to put the party of Roosevelt to the right of Bush on several matters. Discussing Sharon’s disengagement plan, Lieberman said, “Israel cannot and will not return to its pre-1967 borders,” repeating the promise that Bush did not utter. He added, “Palestinians have a right of return — not to Israel, to a Palestinian state.” Lieberman, an author of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, also exhorted Bush to attend to the “unfinished business” of moving the embassy. Bush, who campaigned on a pledge to move the embassy, has broken that pledge by invoking the act’s national security waiver repeatedly. In typical Lieberman style, the speech was heavy on biblical quotes and sermonic cadences, causing a few wags to say Lieberman missed his calling and should have become a rabbi.

Aipac, which does not endorse candidates, maintained official neutrality, with officials speaking of Kerry’s “flawless” pro-Israel voting record and noting that no matter who wins in November, Israel will have a friend in the White House. In conversation, however, many members, some invoking the ancient Jewish principle of “hakarat hatov” — rewarding officials for the positive actions they take — voiced support for Bush. Kerry adviser Jay Footlik, however, said he gave buttons with the slogan “John Kerry for President” printed in Hebrew and others that said “Pro-Israel, Pro-Kerry” to anyone who asked for them, and many asked. Footlik said American Jews would have “many more opportunities” to hear Kerry’s views and interact with him, since his ADL speech was Kerry’s “first, not the last, interaction” with the community since becoming presumptive nominee.

* * *

Aipac Asides: The prognosticators over at Aipac’s political department apparently have a gloomier assessment of the electoral prospects of Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, than those at the esteemed Washington-based National Journal. In the special “Election 2004” edition of the Aipac Insider handed out at the conference, the group put Specter in its “highly vulnerable” category. National Journal handicapper Chuck Todd, by contrast, in a recent “On the Trail” column, gives Specter good odds of beating back a challenge by Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel. Other senators Aipac sees as highly vulnerable are Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California (owing to a GOP energized by the win of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Representatives Aipac identified as “vulnerable” included Democrat Alcee Hastings of Florida — the most pro-Israel member of the Congressional Black Caucus, activists say — Democrat Tim Bishop of New York and Republican Max Burns of Georgia, who had to apologize to much of the world last fall when a prominent supporter at a rally called Burns’ opponent, Tony Center, “that Jew boy down in Savannah.”

As usual, the policy conference’s Monday-night banquet was attended by half the members of Congress and many candidates for office. Among those spotted: Inez Tenenbaum, the Democrat running for the South Carolina seat being vacated by retiring Senator Fritz Hollings. She declined to comment on Hollings’s latest tirade, a column in the Charleston Post and Courier in which he argues that Bush waged the Iraq war “to secure Israel.” We also saw Center, who said that he hoped to garner significant support among African American voters, some of whom view the Jewish community as “closest” to their own. The banquet, held at Washington’s Stadium Armory — the only venue in the capital that can seat 4,500 people — was a mob scene, with some unlovely features. A thunderstorm sent rain through a leak in the armory roof, splattering our table.

* * *

All in the Family: Bush’s liaison to the Jewish community, Tevi Troy, noted author and brother of former Forward columnist Gil Troy, is moving over to the Bush-Cheney campaign. Replacing him at the White House is Noam Neusner, a former chief economic correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. Neusner is the son of legendary historian of ancient Judaism Jacob Neusner. Among other accomplishments, the younger Neusner has written articles for these pages, as has his dad.

ON THE BUTTON: Campaign pins with the slogan ‘John Kerry for President’ in Hebrew were handed out at the Aipac conference.






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