The Jewish vote: Does Bush tailor policy to fit?

Bradley Burston

HAARETZ

August 23, 2004

This month, the major party least identified with Jewish voters will for the first time open its national convention in the American city most identified with the Jews.

The choice of New York City dovetails smoothly with an unprecedented campaign by the Republican Party to win over traditionally Democratic Jewish voters.

The timing may be critical. Bush is running neck-and-neck races in several states with pivotal Jewish populations. Republicans, buoyed by a January American Jewish Committee poll that showed the president taking as much as 31 percent of the Jewish vote, had hoped to double Bush's 19 percent showing in 2000 against Al Gore, who scored nearly eight out of every 10 votes cast by American Jews.

But with the clock ticking toward November, the Bush bid to court American Jews shows signs of having stalled.

A highly visible recent poll commissioned by the National Jewish Democratic Council showed 75 percent of U.S. Jews backing John Kerry, with a bare 22 percent intending to vote for the Republican incumbent.

The effort to land Jewish votes has been closely watched, meanwhile, by American Muslims, who are now believed to outnumber Jews in total population, if not in voting strength.

Of late, the intensive effort to recast the Republican Party in the eyes of Jewish voters has left the White House open to charges that it is tailoring its policies to suit the pro-Israel leanings of U.S. Jews.

The language of the criticism is in some cases bald enough to recall a brace of controversial attacks on the Bush administration prior to the Iraq war. At the time there were widespread allegations, many tinged with what Jews believed was a reincarnated form of classical anti-Semitism, that Jewish neo-conservatives within the administration were lobbying for war at Israel's bidding.

As recently as two months ago, maverick independent candidate Ralph Nader, a son of Lebanese immigrants, was quoted as stating at a press conference at the National Press Club: "The days when the chief Israeli puppeteer comes to the United States and meets with the puppet in the White House and then proceeds to Capitol Hill, where he meets with hundreds of other puppets, should be replaced."

Last week, when the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments against three Arabs suspected of having spent 15 years recruiting for and financing Hamas attacks against Israel, the accusations returned to the fore.

Thomas Durkin, an attorney for indicted Washington-area resident Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, 46, made little effort to glove his finger-pointing. "This is a blatant attempt by the Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department to cater to the Jewish vote," Durkin said.

"It's a foolish attempt to criminalize one side of an international political issue that no U.S. administration has had the courage to resolve," Durkin said.

Another of the defendants, deputy Hamas political bureau head Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, 53, is believed to be among the handful of Most Wanted at the head of Israel's hit list of Islamic militant commanders.

Abu Marzouk, who is said to be in Damascus, was convicted in absentia. He was educated in the United States, but U.S. authorities seized him in 1995 on suspicion of having set up and used ostensible charities in the United States in order to mobilize financial and political support for Hamas. Washington deported him to Jordan in 1997.

This week, senior Palestinian officials appeared to skirt presidential politics as they condemned an apparent shift in the U.S. stance on new settlement construction in the West Bank.

But if Palestinians decided against citing U.S. politics, at least one Israeli was willing to do that for them.

Leftist Meretz-Yahad MK Yossi Sarid declared that the Bush administration was "mistaken if it believes American Jews support the destructive policies of the settlers."

Israeli and U.S. officials have signaled in off-the-record statements that Washington was prepared to abide new "vertical" construction in West Bank settlements - that is, new housing built strictly within the confines of existing enclaves.

In gaining an apparent nod to new construction, Sarid charged, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was exploiting the close-fought presidential race to further his own agenda.

Palestinians had already watched in disbelief and dread when Bush stood alongside Sharon at the White House and declared it unrealistic to expect Israel to cede large West Bank settlement blocs in a future peace deal.

According to Bush, the blocs constituted "new realities on the ground." He departed further from decades of U.S. policy by calling the existent settlement blocs major Israeli population centers.

Bush: Good for the settlers?
At best, Sharon could take but cold comfort in the reports from Washington. As the prime minister regrouped on a brief working vacation at his Negev ranch, a leader of the "rebels" in Sharon's Likud said Sunday that the party hardliners' "very heavy pressure" on Sharon helped influence Washington to shift its stance over new settlement construction.

The statements appeared to echo those of some settler activists, who argued that by holding firm and offering no concessions and no evacuations of West Bank settlements, the Israeli right had brought Washington aboard at no cost and no risk.

"The more that we make it difficult for Sharon, the more the Americans support him, and the more they support the State of Israel," said Deputy Minister Michael Ratzon, a principal spokesman and unofficial "party whip" for the rebels.

Ratzon said the administration was responding in part to the rebels' recent moves to force key party votes related to the disengagement plan.

Responding to a New York Times report on the apparent policy course correction, Ratzon said, "I hear these things and have to say that our move was the correct one.

"It's clear that they [the Americans] would be more in support of evacuating settlements, withdrawal, and a return to the 1967 borders. But seeing that we are applying pressure, and very heavy pressure , they want to show that they are supporting him, in strengthening settlement blocs, or in building 'vertically.'"

Flushed with victory, Ratzon indicated that Israel could leverage its newfound understanding into further tacit agreements, in particular by turning a blind eye to Israeli pledges to Bush to uproot illegal outposts.

"There is no one who is capable of evacuating settlements," Ratzon said, adding that he believes that Sharon knows this as well.

Using the biblical term for the West Bank, Ratzon said that Sharon "hasn't even managed to evacuate a tent or an illegal outpost in Judea and Samaria. So do they really think they'll succeed in evacuating those settlements?"