BOSTON - Even though there are still three months before the presidential elections in the United States, one fact is already clear - no matter who wins, the stance of the White House regarding the conflict in the Middle East will continue to be unequivocably pro-Israeli. George Bush supports the disengagement plan, as does John Kerry. Bush agrees to the inclusion of the settlement blocs in a permanent agreement, as does Kerry. Bush thinks there is no room for the Palestinian refugees in Israel, and Kerry agrees. The next American administration, Republican or Democrat, will continue to support, without hesitation, the policies of the government of Israel. On the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush and Kerry are identical twins.
The path of the Democratic candidate John Kerry toward the formulation of his stance on Israel says a great deal about the political pressures in the United States. During his 20 years in the Senate, Kerry has always been considered pro-Israel, and no one can point to a single instance where he diverged from this stance. Still, in the early stages of the race, the Jewish-American community saw him as a somewhat problematic candidate. This stemmed from a number of comments pointed out by rivals within his own party.
During the primaries, Kerry said in a speech to a group of Arab-Americans, that the separation fence being constructed by Israel is problematic. In an earlier interview, Kerry suggested that former president Jimmy Carter or former Bush Sr. secretary of state James Baker may serve as mediators in the Middle East if he is elected president. He also expressed support for the Geneva Accord after it was signed. His opponents recall that during the 1990s Kerry described Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as a "diplomat" and commended him for the change he had undergone once he became a negotiator in peace talks.
While these opinions diverted from the official stance of the government of Israel, they are all within the mainstream political discourse. After all, even Colin Powell lauded the Geneva Accord, the Bush administration (and the High Court of Justice in Israel) have criticized the route of the separation fence, and as for Baker and Carter, despite their critical stance of the government of Israel, they are remembered as great mediators of the Camp David agreements and of the Madrid Conference.
But in the current American political reality there is no room for nuances. The minute Kerry was marked as problematic from Israel's point of view, his aides became concerned that they might lose Jewish votes - and no less important, Jewish contributions - to the Bush camp. Kerry understood the message and made a turnaround, changing his mind about Baker and Carter, noting that Arafat cannot be a partner in any future negotiations, declaring the separation fence as "legitimate," and stopping references to the Geneva Accord. More importantly, Kerry has made it clear in his political manifesto and in talks with representatives of the Jewish community, that in no way will he pressure Israel or raise new initiatives without first consulting its government.
Thus, the good news is that the next man to sit in the White House will do nothing contrary to the view of the government of Israel. The not-so-good news is that no matter who is elected, the Middle East is guaranteed a further four years of standstill.
It is true, however, that it is difficult to trust the declarations of presidential candidates. George Bush, if elected, will be in his second term and will therefore feel free to take action and may even be surprising. It is also worth remembering that despite Kerry's declarations, Democratic presidents have the tendency to involve themselves well above their heads in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if one chooses to believe politicians, the 2004 presidential elections in the United States are not heralding a breakthrough in the Middle East.
In Kerry's camp they claim the novelty he offers is in the approach. Contrary to Bush, Kerry wants to be more involved, he wants to cooperate in an international formula, and he promises to be different from Bush in demanding that Saudi Arabia will be more answerable for its actions. The emphasis is on differences of style, not substance.
The enormous support Israel enjoys in the United States guarantees that in future election campaigns the candidates will take a clearly pro-Israeli stance and support, without flinching, the government of Israel. This may not augur a solution to the conflict, but it is conducive for the return to normalcy in Jewish-American politics. The matter of Israel was removed from the agenda when both candidates convinced the Jews that support is unequivocal. Now the Jewish community can go back to focusing on matters that once used to be determining issues in elections - welfare, health, separation of religion and state, and safeguarding of human rights.
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