Jewish Journal


August 19, 2004

Mel Levine Takes Kerry Mideast Post


When Washington goes its own way and disrespects its allies, it hurts not only the United States, but Israel as well, says Mel Levine.

"Whenever America is diminished in the eyes of the world, it does Israel no favor," said Levine, who as John Kerry's newly appointed top adviser on the Middle East is expected to play a major role in shaping the Democrat's campaign policy on the volatile and politically sensitive region.

During an interview in his Century City law office, the former congressman from West Los Angeles and Santa Monica was addressing himself to concerns that Kerry's advocacy of a multilateral U.S. foreign policy might mean greater pressure on Israel for concessions to the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states.

Not so, Levine said, "but if we cannot convince Europe, Russia and other countries to keep nuclear weapons away from Iran, to fight terrorism, and to exert greater leverage on Arab countries, we will fail," and thereby weaken Israel.

To gauge Kerry's attitude toward Israel, one need only look at his votes during 20 years in the U.S. Senate, according to Levine.

"By every rating and criterion, Kerry's votes have shown 100 percent solid support for Israel," he said. "That's well understood in his home state of Massachusetts, but not yet throughout the rest of the country."

Levine's appointment as chair of the Kerry campaign's Middle East Policy Working Group has been hailed by Jewish spokespeople and organizations as reassurance that Israel's interests will have an eloquent voice in Kerry's inner circle.

As congressman and member of the House foreign affairs committee from 1983 to 1993, Levine was among Israel's strongest supporters. His clashes with former Secretary of State James Baker on the Mideast policies of the first President Bush have become part of Washington folklore.

Representing the United States, Levine has also had considerable experience in dealing with the Arab side.

At Vice President Al Gore's request, he served as co-president, with Arab-American James Zogby, of Builders for Peace, a private-sector initiative to make the West Bank economy more competitive -- a good effort that largely failed.

Following the 1998 Wye accords, Levine chaired the U.S.-Israel-Palestinian "anti-incitement" task force. He learned from this experience that incitement has to be confronted directly and aggressively, a lesson he is passing on to Kerry.

Until recently, he served on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but has cut his activities in advocacy groups since becoming chairman of the nonpolitical Jewish Community Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

As Kerry's adviser, the role of the youthful-looking 61-year old attorney, who specializes in foreign trade and government relations, is both more and less important than the title might indicate.

The Middle East Policy Working Group, he said, is not a formal committee as such, with regular meetings and joint policy formulations. "I will be seeking informal and informed input from other members, and then render my advice," Levine said.

On the other hand, thanks to Kerry's long service on the Senate foreign relations committee and his global outlook, "he won't need much policy guidance," Levine said. "Unlike other presidents, whose previous experiences were as state governors, Kerry will hit the ground running."

When Jewish Republicans and Democrats argue the merits of their presidential candidates, and whether sizeable chunks of the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish community will this time to defect to President Bush, Republicans stress the incumbent's pro-Israel record.

Democrats -- while not conceding that their man is any less pro-Israel -- emphasize the Bush administration's perceived domestic policy failures.

Edward Sanders, an elder statesman of the Los Angeles and American Jewish communities, and who served as President Jimmy Carter's Middle East and Jewish relations adviser, has no doubt what counts.

"I couldn't vote for a candidate who is good for Israel and bad on everything else," the veteran Democrat and Kerry supporter said. "What's good for a strong and respected United States is good for Israel."

Sanders cited an example from his own experience. When President Richard Nixon was running for re-election in 1972, Yitzhak Rabin, then ambassador to the United States, and Prime Minister Golda Meir made no secret of their preference for Nixon.

Meeting Rabin at that time, Sanders warned him that Nixon would not be good for Israel, and Rabin responded, "Who knows?"

"As it turned out, Nixon became so enmeshed in the Watergate scandal that the Soviets figured that America was preoccupied and thus signaled the Egyptians to cross the Suez Canal and start the Yom Kippur war," Sanders said.

Levine acknowledges that the Democrats may not quite reach the 80 percent of the Jewish vote they got in the last presidential election, when they fielded Gore, a longtime friend of the Jewish community, and Jewish vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.

Levine hopes that Jewish voters will come down overwhelmingly on Kerry's side on a wide range of domestic issues.

"On the top of the list is church-state separation, and to say that the present administration has blurred the line is a significant understatement," Levine said.

Other issues where Levine perceives serious Bush weaknesses include privacy rights, energy independence, woman's right to choose, health care, the environment and preserving social services.

Veteran Democratic Rep. Howard Berman (Van Nuys) has known Levine for some 27 years and sees the latter's appointment as "an obvious statement by Kerry that he will be a strong supporter of Israel and its security interests.

"American Jews respect both competence and fidelity [in support of Israel]," Berman continued. "In Kerry they will get both competence and fidelity."

Another longtime colleague, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) praised Kerry's ability to "translate his views into public policy."

In a survey by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, leaders of major Jewish organizations such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations overwhelmingly endorsed the choice of Levine, although some noted that in the end it would be up to Kerry to act on Levine's recommendations.

Levine said he would be an "active advocate" in the Kerry campaign, but declined to speculate on a future role in a Kerry administration.

He was slightly more forthcoming on the chances of seeking political office in the future. "You never know, there is always a possibility," he said. "Public policy work is my favorite thing."

However Levine, the father of three who is married to journalist Connie Bruck, has no hesitation talking about his current baseball career.

He plays regularly with the Hollywood Stars, a mix of older and younger players, in an amateur hardball league.

"Last Sunday I had two hits -- that doesn't happen every week," he announced triumphantly.

"I retired from baseball at 50," Levine said, "but I missed it so much, I came back."

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