The top Democratic presidential candidates, who have differed sharply with President Bush over his conduct of the Iraq war, are registering their agreement with him over his support for Israel’s bombing of a terrorist target in Syria.
The president called the airborne attack, which hit what Israel described as a training camp of Islamic Jihad in retaliation for Sunday’s bloody bombing of a Haifa restaurant, an “essential” part of a campaign to defend the country. “We would be doing the same thing,” he added, according to The Associated Press.
The Israeli attack, the first such strike inside Syria in 26 years, was criticized in editorials in several leading American newspapers.
But the leading Democrats, at least, all stood with their commander in chief. Republican operatives have been arguing for months in the Jewish community that Bush has been the strongest presidents ever on Israel’s defense, but the agreement among the candidates is only the latest instance in which they and congressional Democrats have been just as accommodating as Bush — if not more hard-line — on Israel’s security needs.
“This was an attack on terrorism, not on Syria,” Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri told the Forward in a telephone interview. “We’re doing a lot to protect ourselves against terrorism. I hardly think we can disagree with a country that is trying to protect itself from a terror attack. It’s self-defense.”
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts also supported the Israeli attack.
“Israel, of course, has the right to defend itself,” Kerry said in an e-mail statement to the Forward. “[Yasser] Arafat and [Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed] Qurei must act far more seriously and aggressively to rein in the militant terrorists if there is to be any hope for peace. Syria must also take steps to cut off support for terrorists, especially if it is to be viewed as an ally in the war on terrorism. And all parties in the region must work together to reduce violence and build confidence. Finally, George Bush must engage in this effort. The United States has a leadership role which is being forfeited with continued violence as the only result.”
Two candidates advocated Israel’s actions on television.
Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut “made it clear [on Fox News] on Sunday that he does believe Israel’s strikes were defensive and that he understands why Israel had to do it,” said spokesman Matt Gobush.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, asked to comment Tuesday by CNN’s Judy Woodruff on the show “Inside Politics,” said, “If Israel has to defend itself by striking terrorists elsewhere, it’s going to have to do that. Terrorism has no place in bringing peace in the Middle East. You know, the attack, [a] deliberate attack of men, women and children, is not permitted under the Geneva conventions, and nations have the right to defend themselves just as we defended ourselves by going into Afghanistan to get rid of Al Qaeda.”
Retired general Wesley Clark, for his part, was asked about the Middle East at a “town hall” forum in Iowa Sunday. He responded, according to a C-Span transcript, “The Israelis have the right to self-defense. Nobody can deny that. When they receive word that terrorists are coming in to attack and kill innocent Israelis whose only crime is to live in the State of Israel, they not only have a right to strike first, they have an obligation.”
A Clark campaign source said “a terrorist camp in Syria that’s training terrorists for future attack would fit that situation.”