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Presidential candidates statements on Israel are under scrutiny

Monday, September 3, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE -- With the U.S. presidential campaign in full swing, both major-party candidates are talking about the most potent foreign-policy question in domestic politics: Israel. While Republican candidate George W. Bush has said more so far, Al Gore, the Democrat, has a track record that is widely considered downright "hawkish" on Israel.

A spokesman for the powerful Israel lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), told the Presbyterian News Service (PNS) last week that both major-party platforms are "overwhelmingly" pro-Israel. So religious leaders are wondering whether they ought to be worried about how their Palestinian Christian partners might fare under either administration.

For instance, does George W. Bush mean what he says when he promises to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? If he does, his critics say, he'll be prejudging the outcome of the peace process and severely limiting the U.S. government's ability to serve as a broker in the peace talks by giving up its neutral status. Or are Bush's promises just election-year pandering to the U.S. Jewish voting bloc, a strong Democratic constituency?

In the other camp, will Al Gore be as unilaterally pro-Israeli as his track record indicates? Though he's made no official campaign promises, Gore has assured the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations that, while the status of Jerusalem needs to be decided in the peace talks, the outcome is "hardly in doubt" -- and his desire is the same as theirs . The Conference is assumed to favor Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Or will Gore find that administering a city that is sacred to three religions and two peoples is tougher than it looks, as the presidents following Ronald Reagan learned?

The Palestinians themselves are attentive to the rhetoric, but not too worried yet; they're accustomed to watching U.S. politicians pander for votes, then take a different tack once in office.

Ever since Reagan's day, for instance, U.S. presidents have had Congressional authority to move the embassy. A clause in the resolution, however, forbids a relocation if it would damage a peace process that is still negotiating the status of Jerusalem. Politically, moving the embassy would acknowledge Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel. President Bill Clinton has relied on the ‘holding' provision, but has promised to revisit the issue before he leaves office.

Only Costa Rica and El Salvador have embassies in Jerusalem. All other nations' diplomatic offices, including the U.S.'s, are in Tel Aviv. "We realize this is not new for American elections," says the Rev. Naim Ateek, the director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology, a religious group that advocates a "just peace" in Palestine/Israel. "In every campaign, the candidates from both parties try to [woo] the Jewish vote.

"Somehow, Israel's interests become very much a part of the campaign." And even though the American Committee on Jerusalem -- a coalition of major Arab-American organizations seeking a solution to the Jerusalem problem that accommodates the religious and political aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis -- is not pleased by either candidate's comments on Jerusalem and the plan to move the embassy, they are waiting to see whether the promises are real or just politics as usual.

ACJ President Rashid Khalidi told PNS: "The only good news is, fortunately, that this kind of pandering tends to be restricted up to election day ... (when) it ceases to be operational policy."

The bad news, Khalidi added, is that all the political talk does influence public opinion on complex issues that Americans tend to oversimplify. For instance, after Bush made his comments about Jerusalem, Khalidi fired off a press release urging Bush not to commit himself to moving the embassy, which Khalidi said would destroy "the last shred" of American neutrality as a mediator in the peace process.

Khalidi said no U.S. administration has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and that the Jerusalem property leased to the U.S. government by Israel as a proposed embassy site is contested land that Israel "acquired illegally" and actually belongs to Palestinians.

Khalidi was equally critical of Gore's slighty more veiled statements. The Bush campaign's web site reiterates the GOP candidate's promise to move the embassy as soon as he takes office, but doesn't say much else about Israel.

Gore's site says quite a lot. It stresses his long commitment to strengthening Israel's military and to U.S.-Israel defense cooperation, and points out that Gore has worked to maintain and increase Israel's annual military budget, which now stands at $2 billion.

While the Web site says Gore will work for peace in the Middle East, as the Clinton-Gore administration has done, it mentions Palestinians just once. It asserts that Palestinian leaders have the responsibility of preventing "those who would resort to violence" from disrupting the peace process. Gore says he understands the importance of the Western Wall and the Old City to Jews in Israel and around the world, and goes on to say: "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and should remain an undivided city, accessible to people of all faiths."

Interestingly enough, it isn't Gore's selection of Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, as his running mate that worries insiders about Gore. It is Gore himself. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, a left-wing Jewish political journal, says Gore has become the administration's right-hand man in dealing with right-wing Jewish groups. "He'll chime in with blind support for whatever policies Israel is championing at the time," Lerner told the PNS.

On the other hand, while Bush hasn't amassed enough of a record for the rabbi to tell his leanings, Lerner said that when the candidate's father was president, he refused loan guarantees to Israel to assist in the re-settlement of Soviet Jews, unless Israel agreed to stop building more settlements in the disputed territories. Lerner wondered if the son might be willing to back down the hardliners.

David Weaver of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. said during an interview with the PNS that there are two ways U.S. campaigns detract from the peace talks -- saying too little about both positions, or too much about only one. It is the "lack of obvious concern or consciousness" about the Palestinian position on Jerusalem that is damaging, he said. "Palestinians are not just negotiating for themselves, but on behalf of the Arab and Muslim world," said Weaver, referring to the claims on Jerusalem of three religions. "It doesn't help for the world's superpower and the broker of negotiations to take a clearly partisan position. "It just heightens the fears, anxieties and resentments in the Arab world about the peace process itself." Weaver is also somewhat skeptical about what politicians say during campaigns, as opposed to what political reality dictates after they take office

With an audible shrug, he says simply, "It's an election year."

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