Lieberman: Jews Should Overcome Anxieties

By E.J. Kessler

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman has some advice for the nervous folks in the Jewish community who say the country is not ready for his presidential candidacy.

“I urge those in the Jewish community who are anxious about it to have faith in America. I do,” Lieberman told the Forward in a telephone interview.

A number of recent reports have quoted Jews as being concerned that his candidacy is “not good for the Jews” because of the unsettled situation in the Middle East. Others worry that his candidacy might stir homegrown antisemitism.

Lieberman said he understands that Jewish angst “from a historical perspective, but it’s not real in terms of the America” in which he campaigned in 2000 and now. “Americans are too fair and sensible” to be fertile ground for prejudice, he said, and to the contrary he has been greeted with “real warmth and acceptance” in many different communities around the country. Minorities, in particular, “feel that with my success, their opportunities expand,” he said. What’s more, he said, his faith resonates in the South, where residents traditionally hold religious values in high esteem.

Lieberman, who called reporters Tuesday to register his reaction to President Bush’s trip to the Middle East, also seemed keen to refute the idea of those in the Jewish community who say that as a Jew, he would need to bend over backward to be evenhanded in the Middle East and to hold Israel at arm’s length.

Getting to the right of Bush, he stressed that it was not the role of the American president to strong-arm Israel into accepting the “road map” to peace — which Bush, speaking to reporters last week, all but admitted doing.

“The only thing that should pressure the Israeli government to take steps is definitive actions by Palestinians to stop terrorism,” he said.

“Israel has accepted the idea of a road map, but not this particular road map,” Lieberman said, noting that Jerusalem has attached a list of reservations and conditions to the American-backed plan.

Accordingly, he counseled a go-slow approach — and keeping an eye fixed on the potentially deleterious moves of the Republican president. “We have to watch that we are careful, in pursuit of a diplomatic victory, that President Bush does not cause Israel to do something that is not in the security interests of Israel and the security interests of the United States,” Lieberman said.

In those remarks, Lieberman struck a decidedly different tone than he has recently, when he chided the administration for its inattention to the Middle East. “The Bush administration has effectively been disengaged from the ground in the Middle East, and when that happens, nothing good will happen between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he told Fox News on May 25, adding: “We’re indispensable there. They need us because we’re the only one they trust. There’s a moment of opportunity here.”

To the Forward, however, Lieberman raised qualms about the road map. He said he objects to the idea, proposed by some in the administration, that the steps of the plan should take place simultaneously rather than sequentially. Israel should act only after the Palestinians have demonstrated 100% effort in fighting terrorism, he averred.

He added, “We’ve got to be careful not to create an equivalency between terror against Israel and settlements” — a danger of the road map, which links a Palestinian cessation of violence with measures by Israel to dismantle some settlements in the territories.

Lieberman said there were many measures, such as releasing Palestinian prisoners, rebating withheld tax revenues and easing conditions around Palestinian towns that Israel could carry out to demonstrate good faith without being pressed to take other steps that would be “long-lasting and definitive.”

One of Bush’s chief supporters, House Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, said Lieberman was inappropriately playing politics with Middle East policy while Bush was engaged in delicate diplomacy abroad. “The president gets it,” said Cantor, who responded to the Forward’s query at the behest of the Republican National Committee, which declined its own comment. “He understands Israel needs to secure its borders and its citizens.”

On the domestic front, Lieberman said the Democrats would be able to parlay their advantage on domestic issues into a strong campaign in 2004. “Healthcare and the economy are issues in the everyday lives of millions of Americans,” he said, and Democrats would meet success “if we speak to those anxieties and insecurities with practical programs that are different than those of Bush,” who he said had done “nothing” to improve healthcare and economy.

“There will be a Harry Truman quality to the campaign, speaking truth, straight talk, about what President Bush has not done,” he said.

Lieberman visited New York on Monday, attending a luncheon and a $1,000-a-plate evening fundraiser in Albany with Democratic members of the New York State Assembly. At the luncheon, he voiced his support for reform of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate long incarcerations for relatively minor offenses. More than 75 lawmakers attended the luncheon, which was catered with rolls, lox and whitefish by Gertel’s, a famous kosher bakery on Grand Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, according to one of the legislators present.

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