Dean’s Mideast Gaffes Help Bush Among U.S. Jews

Posted September 17, 2003 at 2:00pm

Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean is furiously revising and extending his remarks on the Middle East, but they have hurt his party and helped President Bush among Jewish voters.

[IMGCAP(1)]Commenting on last week’s Democratic debate in Baltimore, one well-placed Jewish activist said, “If the only Jew in the race is the one who has to take Dean on, there’s a problem for the party.”

He was referring to the fact that Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) was the lone Democratic candidate to criticize the former Vermont governor during the debate for saying at a campaign event that the United States “shouldn’t choose sides” and should be “even-handed” between Israel and the Arabs.

Dean also said Israel would have to get out of “an enormous number of settlements” without making any parallel demands on the Palestinians and also referred to Hamas terrorists as “soldiers.”

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a Democrat who now supports Bush, told me “we would have expected a more vigorous and spontaneous response from the other Democrats. The silence of the Democratic leadership is very troubling.”

Rosen acknowledged that Dean was reprimanded in statements by 34 House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and by two Dean rivals, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.).

But he said, “Where were the other Democratic leaders? Where was Hillary Clinton? Where was Tom Daschle? You’d expect them to come out strongly.”

Dean has responded to criticism both by accusing his foes of being “petty” and of trying to “divide by fear” — and also by moving to revise his remarks in a more Israel-friendly way.

Even so, a number of influential Jewish figures estimated that Bush presently stands to more than double his 2000 performance — 19 percent — among Jewish voters and said Dean will be carefully watched to see if his revisions are sincere.

They also confirmed that Lieberman is having trouble solidifying what he hoped would be his political and financial base because many Jews — especially older and richer ones — say that “this is not the time to elect a Jewish president.”

Dean and his supporters attribute his comments to the former Vermont governor’s unfamiliarity with Middle East “code words.” To Mideast experts, for instance, being “even-handed” is code for “putting pressure on Israel to make concessions.”

In a letter to the 34 House Members, Dean said the United States should be “a fair and honest broker.” He told The Washington Post that Israel had every right to assassinate Hamas “terrorists” as “enemies in a war.”

In his letter to House Members, he also said that in a peace agreement, “Israel will have to remove a number of settlements,” dropping the word “enormous.” He also said that he called on “the Palestinian leadership to renounce violence and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure that exists inside the Palestinian Authority.”

Dean supporters pointed out that Dean’s wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, is Jewish and that his children have been raised as Jews. His campaign co-chairman, Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told me, “I have not a shadow of a doubt about Howard’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship as a bedrock value.”

Still, some skeptics pointed out that Dean still has not declared Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as an unfit partner for negotiations. And Dean has recommended that former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton be appointed a special Mideast negotiators. Carter is regarded by pro-Israel activists as “even-handed” or even pro-Palestinian.

Even before the Dean controversies, Bush’s support for Israel and refusal to deal with Arafat has garnered him increased support among Jews.

Rosen said that “next to Harry Truman, he is the most pro-Israel president ever.” Mort Zuckerman, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, predicted to me that “Bush will carry at least 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004.”

If that happens, Bush could surpass the post-World War II record for the GOP, 40 percent by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Ronald Reagan scored 39 percent. Bush’s father polled 35 percent in 1988, then dropped to 11 percent when he was perceived as too “even-handed.”

As proof of Bush’s popularity and support for Israel by GOP House leaders, Republican Congressional candidates received 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 2002, a modern record, according to new results issued by the Voter News Service.

Jews represent just 3 percent of the U.S. population, but they are clustered in key swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. GOP activists think a swing to Bush could even make New York competitive in 2004.

Bush’s popularity is one factor cutting into Lieberman’s expected support, which is lagging far behind the overwhelming response given by Roman Catholics to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and by Greek-Americans to Michael Dukakis in 1988.

One major Lieberman fundraiser told me that he was able to raise 30 percent to 40 percent less among Jews than he and the candidate expected. Older potential contributors were telling him, he said, “we don’t need to be visible right now” because of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and on U.S. college campuses.

Also, he said, “There’s a worry about having a Jewish president at a time when the United States is seen to be at war with Islam. And, there’s a worry whether Joe, as a Jew, would be able to do what needs to be done to fight for Israel.

“Besides,” he said, “George Bush, a Protestant, is already doing it.”