Kerry walks tightrope on Middle East policy

The campaign of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry has been struggling to articulate a consistent position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention, which will be held July 26-29.

Confusion over where the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee stands on this issue reflects both the sensitive nature of the issue in American politics and aggressive efforts by the campaign of President George W. Bush to make inroads with traditionally Democratic Jewish voters and donors.

The Bush appeal to single-issue pro-Israel Jewish Americans has played on the close personal, ideological and political ties between the present administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, implying that as long as Likud is in power, Republicans will be able to forge closer links with Tel Aviv.

In essence Kerry is trying to walk the tightrope of outbidding Bush on Israel to protect an important element of his own base, while not appearing to be irresponsible and unreasonable to the rest of the party and the public or tying himself to policy commitments that will be unworkable in office.

An additional danger is that inconsistency on this controversial issue plays into the most powerful Republican critique of Kerry’s political style: that he flip-flops on major issues, saying whatever is necessary to appeal to any given audience. As one popular new GOP bumper sticker has it, “John Kerry: for and against everything.”

There have been at least three major policy statements from the Kerry campaign on the conflict in the past year, all of which are difficult to square with each other, especially on the issue of Israel’s separation barrier in the occupied West Bank.

In an October speech to the Arab American Institute in Michigan during the primaries, Senator Kerry condemned the wall as an obstacle to peace.

“I know how disheartened Palestinians are by the decision to build the barrier off the Green Line – cutting deep into Palestinian areas,” he said. “We don’t need another barrier to peace. Provocative and counterproductive measures only harm Israelis’ security over the long term, increase the hardships to the Palestinian people, and make the process of negotiating an eventual settlement that much harder.”

A “talking points” memo sent to Jewish organizations and leaked to the media in June, which was attributed to Kerry’s adviser on Jewish affairs, Jay Footlik, seemed to reverse this formulation, stating that “John Kerry supports the construction of Israel’s security fence to stop terrorists from entering Israel. The security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense erected in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israeli citizens. He believes the security fence is not a matter for the International Court of Justice.”

In a statement issued after the ICJ ruling that the wall is illegal, Kerry was described as “deeply disappointed.”

The final draft of the 2004 Democratic National Platform, which was agreed to in Miami last weekend, avoids the issue of the wall altogether. It is at pains, however, to repeat the formula that Bush used to endorse Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, stating that it is “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Unlike the talking points, the platform endorses “the creation of a democratic Palestinian state dedicated to living in peace and security side by side with the Jewish State of Israel.” When this passage was adopted in Miami, the committee meeting was interrupted by one of the few outbursts of spontaneous applause during the weekend, several delegates told The Daily Star.

However, it adds, in language again similar to that used by Bush in his endorsement of the Sharon plan, “the creation of a Palestinian state should resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees by allowing them to settle there, rather than in Israel.”

A spokesman for the Kerry campaign, Jin Chon, declined to comment on the talking points memo or clarify which aspects of it may or may not reflect positions of the Kerry campaign, saying “those are not official campaign documents.”

An increasingly exasperated Chon told The Daily Star: “The bottom line is that the position of the Kerry-Edwards ticket is what is in the Platform.”

In what appears to be an effort to reinforce elements of the talking points, Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins on July 8 introduced a bill to “provide funds to eligible joint ventures,” beginning with $25 million, with Israel on security issues and promoting technology transfers. The talking points had promised that as president, Kerry “will act to jump-start the high tech sector working to adapt many of the innovative ‘technologies’ Israel has invented to combat terrorism. He will work to strengthen the US homeland while simultaneously strengthening the Israeli economy.”

In a further effort to solidify pro-Israel Jewish support, Kerry’s brother, Cameron Kerry, who converted to Judaism when he married, made a trip this week with Footlik to Israel. The Israeli daily Haaretz called him “a surrogate to reassure Israelis that the Democratic candidate was as strong a supporter as Bush.” The Kerry brothers discovered 15 years ago that their paternal grandparents were Czech Jews who had converted to Christianity before immigrating to the US. The low-key Cameron is reputed to be a close adviser to his brother and deeply involved in the campaign.

Until his recent drive to outbid Bush on support for Israel, Kerry had been among the Democrats most critical of administration policies on the issue. In December, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, he accused President Bush’s policies of “jeopardizing the security of Israel (and) encouraging Palestinian extremists.”

The Democratic Platform promises: “Under a Democratic administration, the US will demonstrate the kind of resolve to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that President Clinton showed,” an implicit criticism of the Bush administration’s half-hearted and fitful attempts to find a solution to the conflict.

Many observers expect, as this passage of the platform suggests, that a Kerry administration would in practice adopt an approach similar to that of former President Bill Clinton, and might even see the return of figures associated with Clinton’s diplomatic efforts in the region.