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Candidates’ Representatives Discuss Jewish Vote, Middle East

Representatives for seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates squared off this week on issues of importance to the Jewish community, ranging from health care and abortion to Israel and the war on terrorism.

The “Democratic Presidential Insider Roundtable,” sponsored by the New York chapter of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was held on Tuesday evening at the Makor/Steinhardt Center Lecture Hall in Manhattan, and was moderated by the Forward’s political reporter, E. J. Kessler.

With a slew of undecided Jewish democratic voters facing them, and with New York State’s Democratic presidential primary less than four months away, each liaison made the case for why his candidate represented what is best for the Jewish community. Noting that the New York Jewish vote constitutes about 20% of the turnout statewide, and can constitute a full quarter of the vote in New York City, Kessler began by asking the candidate representatives how they would appeal to Jewish voters.

In reactions, the liaisons batted around candidate positions on the various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the West Bank security fence currently under construction to the Geneva Accords led by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Seeking to undo missteps early in the campaign by his candidate Howard Dean, Matt Dorf, reaffirmed his candidate’s commitment to a secure Israel but said he could not support the current plans for the security fence put forward by the Israeli government. Representative Dick Gephardt’s liaison similarly hedged full support for the fence, saying he saw the need for Israelis to defend themselves against terrorist attack but that the fence should be only a temporary measure.

Joseph Lieberman’s representative backhandedly rejected the Geneva Initiative, saying face-to-face negotiations between the elected government of Israel and a responsible Palestinian leadership are the only way to broker a peace deal, while General Wesley Clark’s representative noted that the Palestinians are too weak and suggested that a deal would remain elusive until the Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians saw peace in their own self-interest.

Representative Dennis Kucinich’s liaison sought to distance his candidate from the pack. “Some people think that being a good Jew means you have to support Ariel Sharon and his policies. I don’t agree with that,” said Bob Ginsburg, Kucinich’s representative. “You may think that we should build walls and more settlements and, if you feel that way, then you should not support Kucinich.”

The discussion of Israel’s security quickly led into a heated debate over the war on terror and Iraq, and the positions taken by the various candidates.

“General Wesley Clark has reached the highest level of diplomatic and military activity and is the only candidate who can say today and tomorrow, ‘I know how to get us out of Iraq peacefully and honorably,’” said Clark’s liaison, Fred Ohrenstein.

Dorf tried to broaden the debate to address issues of health care, education and civil liberties but then quickly switched back to Israel and foreign policy, noting that Dean has a plan to deal with Iran, a country whose nuclear aspirations Dorf characterized as the “single greatest threat to Israel.”

Seeking to defend his candidate’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq, Gephardt’s liaison noted that the candidate had based his decision on intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein posed an “imminent threat.” But Dennis Kucinich’s camp took issue with those who had voted with the president, saying the war does not support Jewish values.

“I suggest that anybody who claims that they were fooled who was a member of the Senate or House should resign because they don’t have the intelligence to represent us,” said Ginsburg. “Were any of you fooled?” he asked the crowd.

Many of the liaisons soon pointed out that they believe Jewish voters are interested in more than just the candidates’ positions on Israel and the war on terror.

For example, Gephardt’s representative sought to lay out his candidates position on health insurance, noting that his plan to provide health insurance to every working American would be financed by a 67% tax refund to employers who pay for their employees’ health insurance.

The Kucinich camp took issue with such a proposal, arguing that only a single payer system that regulates drug prices would eliminate administrative inefficiencies and make the pharmaceutical and insurance industries honest again.

Paul Rivera, speaking for Senator John Kerry, said the issues were largely the same for those in and outside of the Jewish community. “On every major issue,” Rivera said to the audience, “there is a choice.”

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