Some 20 people filtered into a Beverly Hills home last week to check out the credentials of Gen. Wesley K. Clark during a nationwide conference call with the Democratic presidential candidate.
"I came to window-shop," said Muriel Waterman, a clinical social worker.
The gathering at the home of attorney Honey Kessler Amado was one of 26 across the country that allowed the former NATO commander to air his views on the Middle East and domestic issues.
In the West Coast portion of the conference call, Clark opposed the idea of hauling Israel before the International Court of Justice in The Hague for its "security fence" project.
"The Hague is not the right venue," he said, urging instead strong American leadership and promising to send "a high-powered team to the Middle East to work with all parties."
He added that "Israel must be safe and ready for negotiations.... The Geneva accord is a hopeful sign, which shows that people can work together."
Clark reemphasized the first point during a later question, saying that Mideast problems "can't be solved with a 7,000-mile screwdriver [from Washington] ... the United States must have a team on the ground."
At the Beverly Hills get-together, attended mainly by liberal professionals and academicians, reaction to Clark was largely favorable but not uncritical. Many were left hungry for more in-depth answers, even allowing for the restricted format and Clark's apparent fatigue after a 15-hour day on the stump in New Hampshire.
"Clark is supportive of Israel, but he didn't talk about the peace process. He has to lead there and not play to American Jews," said professor Gerald Bubis, a veteran Peace Now leader in the United States.
Others, who had heard Clark previously in public and private meetings, such as community activist Elaine Attias, praised Clark's intelligence, honesty and political views, brought out when he was able to speak at greater length.
Shawn Landres, a young social anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Judaism, objected that the questions from California cities were predominantly about Israel.
"Our agenda as American Jews is so much greater," he said.
During the conference call, Rabbi Harold Kushner, a widely read author, endorsed Clark as "a man who can lead us in the right direction."
On Feb. 25, the Clark campaign plans a similar nationwide conference call with a more extensive network of Jewish homes, said Greg Caplan, Clark's Jewish outreach coordinator.
In previous meetings, a number of prominent Jewish personalities in Los Angeles have shown a lively interest in Clark. In recent months, receptions and fundraisers for the general have been hosted by producer Norman Lear; radio mogul Norman Pattiz; and Richard Gunther, jointly with Attias.
"Clark is a powerful personality, with the right military credentials and he's extremely smart," Gunther said. "However, my one objective is to beat Bush and his disastrous policies. If Clark falters in the primaries, I might gravitate to the strongest ticket."
A spokesperson for Pattiz said that he had contributed to a number of Democratic candidates, but had not yet decided on his final choice.
"So far, most major Jewish figures here have not yet publicly committed to any candidate," political adviser Donna Bojarsky said.
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