WASHINGTON — President Bush’s State of the Union Address drew mostly negative reviews among Jewish groups upset over his pointedly partisan stance on several domestic issues and his failure to make any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Just months after describing the push for peace as a personal priority to which he is deeply committed, Bush and his advisers opted not to include even one direct reference to the U.S.-backed “road map” plan, instead simply mentioning Jerusalem in a list of many cities around the world still plagued by terrorism. The omission drew immediate criticism from several Jewish groups and Democrats.
In her rebuttal to Bush‘s address, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California faulted the president for a “diplomatic disengagement that almost destroyed the Middle East peace process.” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she was “disappointed” at the president’s failure to mention the peace process. And the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, Bruce Reed, told the Forward he expects Democratic presidential candidates to step up this line of criticism as “another exhibit in the larger critique about the string of foreign policy fumbles that the administration has made recently.”
On the domestic front, several Jewish groups were distressed at the president’s tentative endorsement of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and his call for congressional action to codify his executive orders offering billions of dollars in government funds to religious organizations delivering social service programs.
The speech comes amid predictions by the president’s supporters that in November he will significantly surpass the estimated 20% of the Jewish vote he won in 2000. Those predicting such a shift generally have based their prediction on the assumption that Bush’s support for Israel would win over Jewish Democrats. But in his address, widely viewed as the opening shot in his 2004 campaign, he downplayed this supposed strong point, veering instead into domestic terrain where his willingness to lower the church-state wall and cater to his conservative base seems certain to alarm many Jewish groups and voters.
“To date, virtually none of the safeguards that we have called for and asked for and written in formal comments for have been integrated” into Bush’s administrative orders on funding faith-based organizations, said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s just a matter of time until there are going to be the kinds of abuses that we are concerned about.”
The Orthodox Union took an opposing view, praising the president’s call for Congress to codify his measures into law, saying that religious organizations should not be blocked from receiving such funds. But the O.U. seemed to be staking out a lonely position among Jewish groups: In addition to the ADL, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism raised concerns about Bush’s remarks on funding religious groups.
Bush’s opening call for Congress to make the USA Patriot Act permanent also drew criticism from the Reform center and JCPA, an umbrella group of 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 community-relations councils.
“We have serious concerns with the Patriot Act,” said JCPA executive director Hannah Rosenthal. “The fact that Bush led with the Patriot Act was disappointing.”
Liberal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are particularly disturbed by provisions in the act granting law enforcement agencies sweeping powers. One of the most controversial, Section 215, allows the FBI to obtain “tangible things” — a category including library, travel, genetic, health, business and firearms records — without standard judicial review or any mechanism for the person affected to mount a legal challenge.
The Reform center also expressed concern over Bush’s omission of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“So far, the president seemed to have been personally engaged in trying to move the peace process along, for the last year and a half, and one can only hope for the sake of peace in the Middle East, that this will remain a major priority for the administration, and that the absence in the speech does not signal a change of policy,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the RAC.
Yet foreign policy experts and Republican insiders agree that the Bush administration is unlikely to work hard at brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace as the president embarks on his reelection campaign. “I think it is true, from a policy point of view, that Bush will not inject himself any further in the Middle East peace process” before the November election, said Henry Siegman, a former head of the American Jewish Congress who now is a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Siegman said that, in an election season, “Bush will not put pressure on [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s government to significantly alter its basic approach, absent a real Palestinian effort to control terror.” And, Siegman added, such a Palestinian effort is very unlikely.
Bush will not feel pressure to take bold action to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, political observers agreed, because Democrats are unlikely to make a credible case against his Israeli-Palestinian policy.
Marshall Breger, who served as White House liaison to the Jewish community under President Reagan and now teaches law at Catholic University in Washington, said that attacking Bush over his policy on Israel “would not get Democrats much traction.”
A similar sentiment was expressed last week at a panel discussion hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. Both panelists, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and conservative pundit William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, agreed that, although the Bush’s broader Middle East policy will take center stage as a campaign issue this year, his policy on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution will be marginal to the campaign.
“We’re going to have a big foreign policy election to which the Middle East will be central,” said Kristol, predicting that Bush’s post-September 11 policy in the Middle East will all but dominate the televised presidential debates.
“The debates are going to be at least half foreign policy, and its going to be very contentious,” Kristol said. “It’s been a long time since we had a major partisan divide on foreign policy in a presidential election.” But, Kristol added, “there is no big difference between the parties on the Israeli-Arab issue.”
Greenberg seemed to agree, predicting that Democrats would focus their criticism of Bush’s foreign policy on what they describe as his reckless unilateralism, rather than on his handling of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“I think rhetorically the Democrats will not talk about democratization and Israeli-Palestinian peace and all these things,” Greenberg said. “I think the only thing that matters here is whether the go-it-alone policy is successful and whether it’s likely to be successful in the future. The other pieces are a small part of the equation.”