As the 2004 presidential race gets under way, Senator Joseph Lieberman appears to have damaged his support among hawkish and Orthodox Jews with statements he made during a recent trip to the Middle East.
At news conferences during the trip, the Connecticut lawmaker expressed support for a Palestinian state, deplored poor humanitarian conditions in the West Bank and identified Saudi Arabia as a target of Islamic terrorism. On visits to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain December 22-27, Lieberman conferred with leaders of those countries and the Palestinian Authority in meetings that were widely seen as a bid to establish his credentials as a leader who could deal fairly with problems in the Middle East.
“The trip did not play well in our community,” said the executive vice president of Religious Zionists of America, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow. “I say this as a friend — the Orthodox community is troubled by his statements, by his trying to lean over backward for a Palestinian state.”
Remarks like Ganchrow’s indicate that Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, risks losing the strong support he garnered from Orthodox and hawkish Jews during his 2000 vice presidential run.
While Lieberman’s candidacy provoked tremendous pride across the board among Jews, it generated special enthusiasm among Orthodox Jews, who, unlike some leaders of secular Jewish organizations, applauded the senator’s faith-tinged campaign talk and frequent references to God. Some hawkish Jews, meanwhile, long have looked to Lieberman, who has a reputation as a security hawk, to provide a check on any leftward drift in the Democrats’ foreign policy.
Morton Klein, national president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, said of Lieberman’s remarks, “It is deeply disappointing that Senator Lieberman, who says he strongly supports the U.S. war against terrorism, is now taking positions sympathetic to two regimes that actively support terrorism — Saudi Arabia, which funds Hamas and suicide bombers’ families, and the Palestinian Authority, which orders, finances and glorifies the murder of Israeli Jews.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, a hawkish Orthodox group, said he was concerned that Lieberman had met with P.A. officials at a time when “President Bush has clearly stated that you’re either with us or against us in the war on terrorism and made a strong position of not negotiating with leaders of the P.A., because they’re part and parcel of terrorism. It raises questions about what kind of message the senator is sending by the people he has chosen to meet with…. He’s arguing for a Clinton-type appeasement.… There’s concern the Senate will look to him as a Jewish voice.”
Lieberman pointedly avoided meeting with Yasser Arafat when he visited Ramallah, equated Israel’s fight against terrorism with that of the United States and said the Palestinians could only gain a state after foreswearing terrorism. His spokesman, Daniel Gerstein, reiterated that position in an interview with the Forward. “It’s the policy of this administration and the U.S., and has been the position of Senator Lieberman for a long time, that there will not be peace until there is a Palestinian state coexisting peacefully alongside Israel,” Gerstein said. “Before we can talk about the creation of a Palestinian state, terror committed by Palestinians has to stop.”
Gerstein said Lieberman’s “position on this is no different than the administration’s,” adding that the senator had criticized Bush last spring when Bush had tried to put a brake on Israeli incursions into the West Bank in response to a wave of terrorist attacks.
Even so, Lieberman was sharply attacked in a December 30 opinion article in The Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a popular Orthodox author and lecturer.
“What I found most troubling was Lieberman’s criticism of the Bush administration’s Mideast policies, contrasting them with the ‘tremendous regard’ he held for the devotion former president Bill Clinton showed for creating peace in the Middle East, and for the ‘enormous effort’ he put into trying to solve the conflict,” Boteach wrote. “Let us be clear. For all his good intentions, and for all his genuine love for Israel and the Jewish people, Clinton brought incalculable, even irreparable harm to the Jewish state. His misguided meddling, which involved, among other outrages, inviting Arafat to the White House more than any other world leader, pushed Israel into unending concessions with a partner who was never accepting of Israel’s existence. The result, as we now know, is thousands of Israeli civilians murdered and maimed by Palestinian terrorists.”
Several Orthodox Jewish communal officials said the Boteach article had gained wide distribution and was prompting sentiment against Lieberman’s expected candidacy. The Bush administration also has promoted itself successfully among Orthodox Jews with its hawkish foreign policy stances, they said.
Ganchrow, whose pro-Israel political action committee, Hudpac, has donated to Lieberman’s campaigns, said Lieberman would have to re-earn his stripes among the Orthodox.
“The Orthodox community has four heroes: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice,” Ganchrow said. “There are many people who believe that this is the most outstanding administration on the U.S.-Israel relationship. They don’t have to prove their bona fides or show that they’re fair. Our community is not interested in ‘evenhandedness’ or in showing that the Saudis have moral equivalency. We want a pro-Israel ‘special relationship.’”
Dovish pro-Israel activists, on the other hand, voiced appreciation for Lieberman’s remarks and actions. The director of policy analysis of the Israel Policy Forum, M.J. Rosenberg, said Lieberman had “broadened his base” with his remarks. “A tiny fringe will be upset by what he said,” Rosenberg said. “Most Jews will be proud.” In particular, Lieberman had improved his chances with Democratic activists and opinion makers, Rosenberg said. “I’ve heard people in Washington say they are taking a second look at him because of his Mideast trip,” he said. “When they see a nuanced approach, a middle way of achieving peace, compassion for the Palestinians, they say he’s anything but a mindless hawk.”
Lieberman told reporters after a December 23 meeting with Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo that “There’s strong support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people for independent statehood. The question is whether there will be sufficient leadership here and in the world to bring this about sooner than later.”
During a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Lieberman also criticized the conditions in the P.A.’s West Bank capital, Ramallah, as “desperate” and told him that Israel would have a problem in Washington if the situation is not eased after an expected American war with Iraq.
In Saudi Arabia later on in his trip, Lieberman said that the strictly Islamic state, which has been accused by many quarters of financing terrorism and Muslim radicalism, was the target of such terrorism, not its sponsor.
“There is a civil war going on within the Islamic world,” he told reporters at a Tel Aviv news conference. “States like Saudi Arabia ultimately are most at risk from groups like Al Qaeda. Even though they have attacked the U.S. ruthlessly, the goal must be Saudi Arabia. They are clearly not intending to conquer the United States of America, but they all have in mind overthrowing the regime in Saudi Arabia.”