WASHINGTON - Surprising results this week in the Iowa primary have caused the American Jewish community, and supporters of Israel in the United States, to take a closer look at Democratic candidates who have up to now been trailing the pack.
In past months, the Jewish community was preoccupied with then front-runner Howard Dean. It monitored closely what appeared to be worrisome comments made by Dean, particularly his reference to an "evenhanded approach" toward the Middle East conflict. Though the obsession with Dean obscured the other candidates, the other Democratic Party hopefuls did not forget the Jewish community.
On Wednesday, Wesley Clark's staff organized a nationwide event aimed at his Jewish supporters. In dozens of cities around the country, rallies were held for Clark, and the retired general greeted his supporters in conference calls. Clark tried to allay Jewish voters' fears, most of them related to Israel. "I believe we should take risks for peace, and we will reach peace in the Middle East," Clark declared. He declined, however, to detail a peace plan. He did take a hard line toward the Arab countries. "Years ago, I saw that the Palestinians are teaching hate in classrooms, and I am also worried about the Saudis preaching hate. When I am president, I will take action against that," he stated.
Clark struck a similar chord in his comments on Iran. He anticipated democratic reform in Tehran: "I am convinced that if we can get Western culture and Western ideas that are suitable for the younger generation [there], we will see a change in this society," he said. Clark indicated also that Syria should undertake reforms.
While he is careful not to side with the conservatives in the Bush administration who evince full or partial support for the military option vis-a-vis Damascus, Clark recommended playing tough with the Syrians. U.S. policy toward Damascus, he declared, should aim at "breaking the grip of the extremists surrounding Bashar Assad. We want to see there an evolution that will end the threat on Israel and will enable them to reach a peace agreement with Israel, without Israel having to give assets needed for its security."
As far as American Jews are concerned, the jury is still out on the Democratic Party's new star, John Kerry. An experienced politician with 18 years on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee under his belt, he has a solid record of supporting Israel. American Jewish sources in Washington indicated that Kerry's comments in off-the-record talks recall the approach adopted by the Clinton administration: unqualified support for Israel, yet also insistence that a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians depends upon Israeli concessions in the territories.
A few days after the Geneva Accord signing ceremony, Kerry praised the draft peace proposal, ignoring the reservations of the Sharon government. He has also proposed sending a special envoy to the Middle East - and one of the names he has mentioned in this connection is that of former Secretary of State James Baker.
In some American Jewish eyes, Baker is viewed has having been instrumental in determining foreign policy that brought U.S.-Israel relations to a low point.
The bottom line, says one seasoned political observer in Washington, is that Israel has nothing to fear from Kerry, Clark or other Democratic hopefuls. All of the candidates endorse their party's supportive stance toward Israel, and the candidates are surrounded by staff workers who are long-standing friends of Israel.
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