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The Smearing of Senator Kerry

It has already begun. We’re eight months away from the presidential election, and the Bush-Cheney team is trying to distort the record and blacken the name of John Kerry in the Jewish community.

No matter that Senator Kerry has a perfect 18-year voting record on Israel and signs onto all of the pro-Israel letters, initiatives and resolutions. No matter that he has said all the right things this past year about shunning Yasser Arafat, supporting Israeli security measures, condemning the International Court of Justice for meddling in the conflict, condemning Palestinian violence in front of Arab-American audiences and criticizing our coddling of the Saudis.

But the Bush-Cheney attack dogs — never known for overestimating the intelligence of the Jewish electorate — are trying to conjure up all kinds of innuendos and half truths to create fear and paranoia about how John Kerry, despite his actual record, is some kind of closet enemy of the U.S.-Israel friendship.

So what is the substance of their attack? First, they call the senator a “flip flopper.” This tactic is straight out of the GOP playbook. Republicans are trying to paint Kerry as both an ideological liberal and as someone who keeps changing his mind because he has no philosophy. Since “liberal” is not the dirty word in the Jewish community that it is for the larger electorate, Republicans fall back exclusively on charges that Kerry has been inconsistent.

The Bush-Cheney surrogates suggest that between last fall and now, Kerry has changed his tune on Israel’s security fence. Bush partisans are strangely quiet about the fact that their own Republican president has changed his tune even more dramatically on this exact same issue. In the fall of last year the Bush administration — on numerous occasions — publicly castigated the Sharon government over its fence proposals. It was only at the beginning of this year, after the Israelis made it clear where the fence would run and after Democratic criticism of the president’s pressure on Israel, that the administration began to warily support Israel’s security fence.

Kerry’s supposed sin was that last fall he seemed to imply that he shared the administration’s concerns about the fence in front of an Arab-American group — an appearance during which he straightforwardly condemned Palestinian violence. In fact, Kerry strongly supports the security fence now that the Sharon government has clarified the fence’s route and explained that its path will not be treated as a final border.

The next coordinated line of attack came when Bush-Cheney researchers stumbled upon a line from a 1997 book written by Kerry that referred to Arafat’s “transformation from outlaw to statesman.” This is supposed to prove that Kerry is soft on the old terrorist. Never mind that Kerry has, for years, solidly rejected Arafat as a negotiating partner. Never mind that 1997 was a totally different era in the Middle East and that in the mid-1990s Yitzhak Rabin thanked Arafat for choosing “the path of peace.” Never mind that in April 2002 President Bush refused to label Arafat a terrorist, instead arguing that Arafat had supported numerous peace initiatives. Nor did it occur to GOP Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who made this charge of coddling Arafat, that some of his Republican colleagues — good friends of Israel — who served in Congress in the 1990s, had made similar statements. Indeed, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said at the time that Arafat should be “dealt with” as a partner.

But the Republican attacks on Kerry get even worse. At least one conservative online newsletter has used a badly botched and retracted Ha’aretz story that falsely accused Kerry of saying at a campaign stop that Sharon was not a partner for peace. What Kerry actually said at the campaign event (as reported by The Jerusalem Post and other news outlets) was that Arafat was not a partner for peace.

Some will apologize for this reckless spreading of distortions of Senator Kerry’s record by asking: “What do you expect in an election year?” Well, maybe we can’t expect much from anonymous e-mail smears and from a handful of partisan-hack journalists. But officials like Senator Coleman and Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot, who has also questioned Senator Kerry’s support for Israel, should know better.

It’s not just that the use of such half-truths and distortions debases the political process — that’s bad enough. But such tactics ultimately undermine the bipartisan strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship. The discussion of Israel’s security in this campaign is too important to be left to the GOP cheap-shot artists.

In 2002 President Bush’s partisans broke with long-cherished traditions of bipartisanship in times of national crisis and used the war against terrorism as a political hammer against their Democratic opponents. In 2004 they threaten to do the same thing in the Jewish community with the issue of Israel’s security. It’s a bad thing to do. It’s bad for the truth, it’s bad for Israel and it’s bad for our country.

Ira N. Forman is executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

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