HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — With polls showing that this most crucial of swing states could once again determine the presidency, both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are bombarding the region with high-profile emissaries in an effort to boost Jewish support.
The frenzied push to harvest Jewish votes comes in a state in which Bush won by only 537 votes in 2000 and Jews can comprise 8% of Florida’s electorate, depending on turnout. Last time around, Jews in Florida are believed to have given about 80% of their vote to the Gore-Lieberman ticket.
Both candidates visited the Sunshine State over the weekend and sent their top foreign policy advisers to South Florida to attend a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.
In addition, the Kerry campaign this week dispatched former President Clinton to speak to 2,000 supporters at a synagogue in Boca Raton and organized what was billed as a two-day “Jewish bus tour,” featuring the Democratic candidate’s brother, Cameron Kerry, a convert to Judaism; attorney Alan Dershowitz; comedian Larry David; Senator Joseph Lieberman, and several other Democratic congressmen.
Republicans, for their part, have mounted a similar “Jewish” surrogate program for Bush. Former New York mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, both popular figures with Jewish Floridians who hail from the Big Apple, filmed an advertisement together for Bush that will be aired in the area. Koch, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Bush fund-raiser Fred Zeidman, Orthodox outreach maven Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis and former White House aide Jay Lefkowitz all have been stumping recently at Jewish venues in Florida. A GOP
source said that in the final weekend, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Josh Bolten, the only Jewish Bush Cabinet member, and New York Governor George Pataki would be heading south.
At a rally Sunday at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Kerry devoted part of a speech to 12,000 supporters, including many holding signs saying “Jewish Americans for Kerry-Edwards,” to remarks about the security of Israel. “I will make Israel safer than George Bush has because I’ll stand up to those Arab countries that are still supporting Hamas and Hezbollah and the Al-Aqsa Brigade and I’ll be tough,” Kerry said. Bush supporters and others, including Lieberman, who said that Kerry hadn’t been talking substantively enough about Israel, have criticized the Democratic candidate in the press.
The Kerry campaign also sent its biggest surrogate gun, former President Clinton, down to Florida to speak Tuesday at Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative synagogue. Wearing a yarmulke, the popular Clinton, who won about 80% of the Jewish vote in 1996, told 2,000 Kerry supporters at the synagogue: “There is no doubt in my mind that the security of Israel… will be safe with John Kerry as president.”
Representatives of both candidates delivered staunchly pro-Israel messages at the Aipac conference, held at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a possible secretary of state in a second Bush administration, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, said to be the front-runner for secretary of state in a Kerry administration, hewed to the same line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of them voiced unswerving commitment to maintaining strong American-Israeli relations and pledged support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, Israel’s efforts to build a West Bank security fence and its refusal to engage Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The only difference between them was that Holbrooke said Kerry advocated the appointment of a special envoy to the Middle East. Holbrooke repeatedly stressed during his keynote speech Sunday that such a resumption of high-level American diplomatic engagement in the region would not translate into added pressure on Israel.
“Having an envoy and a renewed engagement in the region will not be at Israel’s expense,” he said, noting that Kerry’s intentions had been misrepresented. “But such a U.S. presence has been missing for three years and it is of value for Israel, especially when it comes to pressuring Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, on behalf of Israel.”
Holbrooke told the Forward in an interview that Kerry’s opponents have distorted his views on the Middle East. “Some of Kerry’s opponents have misrepresented his positions badly and have tried to suggest that he is not as pro-Israel as President Bush,” Holbrooke said. “This is simply not true. In fact, he has been a much longer-standing supporter of Israel than Bush; his voting record is perfect.”
He added that mention in a December speech of former presidents Clinton, Bush and Carter and former secretary of state James Baker as possible special envoys were premature and that no decision had been made about the identity of such an envoy. Carter and Baker are especially unpopular figures in the Jewish community, and Kerry has since said they were included in the speech by mistake. Holbrooke also dismissed a report last week in The Washington Post claiming that he was being considered for such a position.
During her speech to Aipac members Monday, Rice stressed Bush’s strong support for Israel and claimed that his shunning of Arafat was bearing fruit, saying that even countries inclined to keep channels open with him were growing frustrated with the Palestinian leader. She said that foreign leaders who still talk to Arafat must pressure him to step aside, now that Israeli leaders are pushing a plan to withdraw from Gaza.
Rice said that a discussion has to happen where other leaders tell Arafat that the “land is now being returned to the Palestinian people…. You said that’s what you wanted all these years. Now is time to step aside,” If Arafat resigns, a prime minister could take power and restructure the Palestinian security forces, she said.
Her point was echoed by Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weisglass, who said by video link that responsibility for Gaza would be in the hands of the Palestinians following the Israeli withdrawal.
Rice drew applause with her criticism of Arafat, as well with her efforts to outline the positive consequences of removing Saddam Hussein from power and to stress the need to spread democracy in the Middle East. But the crowd sat silent when she said Israel must halt settlement expansion activity and allow greater movement for Palestinians, and when she praised Saudi Arabia for its help in fighting terrorism since the terrorist attacks in Riyadh in May 2003.
Holbrooke drew a round of applause when he claimed that he did not understand the “free ride” Saudi Arabia was getting from the administration. He reiterated the point in an interview with the Forward, stating that Kerry was “much, much tougher” than Bush on the Saudis.
For Aipac, the conference represented a return to normalcy for the organization, after being linked in media reports in August to an FBI counterintelligence probe. Aipac leaders boasted about the 700-person turnout. They also noted that the organization has raised $42 million this year, its most successful fund-raising campaign.
According to media reports, the FBI is investigating two Aipac officials for allegedly passing classified material from a Pentagon analyst, Larry Franklin, on to the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
No public mention was made of the investigation, though conference participants said it came up in closed meetings. Steve Rosen, one the two Aipac officials named in the press reports, attended the conference. Aipac sources said they had no further information about the investigation’s progress.
An Aipac spokesman downplayed the political dimension of the gathering, noting that Rice was scheduled to address the group months in advance.