A Kerry administration would avoid the pressure other presidents have used to nudge Israel in peace negotiations, and would consult closely with the Jewish state before launching any new Mideast peace initiative.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, outlined his approach to Middle East peacemaking in an interview with JTA on Monday, the same day he launched his campaign to win Jewish votes with a major policy speech to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Kerry has been working hard to mitigate the effect in the Jewish community of President Bush's extraordinary concessions to Israel last month, when the president recognized some Israeli claims to the West Bank and rejected any right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
The Jewish vote could play a crucial role in 10 swing states in what is likely to be a close election this fall, and Kerry is on a fund-raising drive that needs a strong turnout among the Democrats' broad base of Jewish donors. His ADL speech sounded a range of notes aimed at pleasing Jewish ears -- on civil rights, anti-Semitism and Israel.
"For the entire 20 years that I have been in the United States Senate, I'm proud that my commitment to a secure Jewish state has been unwavering; not even by one vote or one letter or one resolution has it wavered," Kerry said to the applause of the ADL audience. "As president, I can guarantee you that that support and that effort for our ally, a vibrant democracy, will continue."
That's a guarantee that Bush -- or for that matter, almost any of his predecessors -- easily could make. In his subsequent interview with JTA, Kerry sought to elaborate on what would distinguish his presidency vis-a-vis Israel.
"I'm very sensitive to the pushback that came from overly aggressive presidents who tried to just advance the title" of a peace process, "without the substance," Kerry told JTA. "There's always been a feeling of concessions driven without a return on it. I will never voice a concession that somehow puts Israel's judgment of its security at risk."
The only president Kerry cited specifically was President Clinton. He praised Clinton for his efforts as an "honest broker" between Israelis and Palestinians, but acknowledged, "Some people, obviously there are a few people, who felt he pushed too hard."
Clinton pressed Israel into offering unexpectedly large concessions at the Camp David summit in 2000.
Kerry also said his belief in a multilateral approach to foreign affairs did not apply to Israel.
"The multilateral community has always been very difficult with respect to Israel, and we have always stood up against their efforts to isolate Israel," he said.
Kerry said his criticism of what he calls the Bush administration's unilateralism has to do with the administration of Iraq, environmental issues and containment of North Korea.
"None of that changes my record being wary [of] the way the U.N. has been used as a sort of battering ram with respect to Israel," Kerry said.
Kerry reiterated his endorsement of Bush's recent concessions to Israel in exchange for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's commitment to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank.
"'Right of return' is a nonstarter. We need to get a note of reality into these discussions," he said.
Likewise, refusing to recognize the permanence of some settlements is "disingenuous," Kerry said.
Sharon's Likud Party rejected the settlements-for-withdrawal deal in a referendum Sunday, a blow to the Bush administration's hopes of claiming at least one victory for its otherwise battered Middle East posture.
Kerry suggested that if Bush made mistakes it had to do with how he framed the deal, which caught U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East off guard.
"There might have been ways in which the administration might have done diplomacy around this in a more effective way," he said.
Kerry said he would encourage America's Arab allies to get more involved in developing alternatives to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He faulted the Bush administration for not seizing the moment immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Arab nations might have been more susceptible to persuasion.
"There was an opportunity to perhaps take advantage of their sensitivity to being hauled over the front pages of every newspaper of the world when it happened," he said. "There were some opportunities there to advance the accountability factor, the transparency factor, perhaps to get them to do a more overt effort to helping some kind of legitimate entity to emerge with which Israel could, in fact, negotiate."
Kerry said he pressed those issues with Arab leaders when he toured the region in January 2002.
If elected, Kerry said, his first step with regard to the Middle East would be to consult with Israeli and U.S. Jewish leaders.
"I'm not about to go off on some grand design. We've got to see where we are in terms of security, in terms of where is the government of Israel at that point in time," Kerry said.
He also backed off an earlier commitment to send a presidential envoy to the region. The people he proposed -- Clinton, President Jimmy Carter or former Secretary of State James Baker -- angered some supporters of Israel.
Kerry also agreed with the policy of isolating Arafat, whom Israel and the Bush administration accuse of ties to terrorism.
"He's where he appropriately belongs now, which is on the sidelines," Kerry said.
Kerry demonstrated a fluency with the issues, citing first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius and tossing in an allusion to the efforts of Menachem Begin, the late Israeli prime minister, to return the Gaza Strip to Egypt during peace negotiations in the 1970s.
Meeting afterward with Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to Washington, Kerry also showed an interest in internal Israeli politics, asking why Sharon had risked putting his withdrawal plan to a Likud Party vote instead of taking it to the entire Israeli public.
Kerry had reached out to Sharon for a meeting on his recent Washington trip, but was rebuffed. Kerry's speech to the ADL came ahead of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual meeting, which will feature a top Bush administration official, but not Kerry. AIPAC never invites an opposition presidential candidate to speak when an incumbent is running for reelection.
In his speech to the ADL, Kerry sought to extend a prominent campaign theme -- that Bush's conservative agenda has divided the country -- into one that resonated with an organization championing dialogue and conciliation.
He celebrated the "notion that we don't try to have a politics that goes down to the lowest common denominator, but rather lifts people up to the highest-common denominator; that doesn't try to drive wedges between people in order to govern and conquer, but recognizes the words of Abraham Lincoln -- that a house divided against itself cannot stand," Kerry said in his speech.
"And we should ask ourselves in this country why it is that we are so divided today," Kerry said.
Democrats worry that Bush, who has impressed many in the Jewish community with a gut-level affection for Israel and its leaders, could cut into the community's traditional support for the Democrats.
Kerry's voting record on Israel is spotless, but he acknowledged the difficulty of conveying his visceral attachment to Jewish causes.
"I want to share with you more personally why that is so," he said in his speech, after repeating his commitment to Israel. "Because you often hear those words, but it's important to understand sort of how they connect to somebody, what it means."
Kerry recalled shouting "Am Yisrael Chai!" from atop Masada; he delivered a sensitive eulogy to Lenny Zakim, an ADL director in Boston who died of bone marrow cancer in 1999; and he spoke about the scourge of revived anti-Semitism.
Afterward, some Jewish organizational leaders suggested Kerry had really connected.
"When he spoke about his experiences and his 20-year relationship with Lenny Zakim, you could see he had a real connection with the State of Israel and the Jewish community," one said.
But another leader said he wanted to hear more substance on the Middle East.
"There was not a lot of red meat in there," he said. "It was a lot more personal than political."
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