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WASHINGTON - The recent statements about Israel by leading Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean were the last thing the Democratic Party needed. The Israel issue sparked off a public confrontation among the candidates, with Democratic congressmen joining the fray.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are thrilled by the crack in their rival party's united front regarding Israel. They are also heartened by the surveys indicating the growing tendency of American Jews to vote for the Republican Party.

How did the Israel issue rise to the fore of the Democratic primaries debate? It all began with a statement by front-runner Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor, at an election event at Santa Fe last week. He said "it is not our place to take sides" in the Middle East conflict. A few days later he told the Washington Post "the United States needs an evenhanded approach to the conflict."

Senator Joseph Lieberman, also a Democratic candidate, responded sharply: "If this is a well-thought-out position, it's a mistake and a major break from a half a century of American foreign policy." Lieberman said Dean either understands nothing about foreign policy, or wants to damage the special relations between the U.S. and Israel since the state's establishment.

John Kerry, once the Democratic front-runner and today second after Dean in the polls, said "it is wrong that Governor Dean has proposed a radical shift in the U.S. policy toward the Middle East."

The argument climaxed at a debate among the nine Democratic candidates in Baltimore on Wednesday. In contrast to the previous restrained, polite discourse, the Israeli issue became the main sparring arena between Lieberman and Dean.

"All of us here ... have quite correctly criticized George W. Bush for not standing by our values in our foreign policy and for breaking our most critical alliances. That, with all respect, is exactly what Howard Dean's comments over the last week about the Middle East have done," attacked Lieberman.

"I am disappointed in Joe. My position on Israel is exactly the same as Bill Clinton's," retorted Dean.

"Not right," interrupted Lieberman.

"Excuse me, Joe," said Dean. "I didn't interrupt you and I'd appreciate it..."

"Not right," Lieberman interjected, turning Israel into the hottest subject in the Democratic camp.

Jewish organizations protested Dean's comments, which indicate he wants to change the American pro-Israeli policy to reflect a balanced approach to both sides. A letter is being circulated in Dean's party denouncing his statements and position, and even Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi and her deputy Steny Hoyer have criticized his position.

Dean is trying to mend the impression, maintaining his positions are the same as Clinton's. This week he wrote to President Bush, calling on him to ask Clinton to embark on an urgent mediation mission to the Middle East.

In an interview to CNN on Wednesday, Dean refused to withdraw his statement but admitted "I have learned that `evenhanded' is a very sensitive term and I could have used a different one."

Sources in the Jewish community say that Dean has wrecked his chances of getting significant contributions from Jews. However, some say this is less significant to Dean, whose campaign is based on contributions from citizens via the Internet. Many believe Dean's statement will drive more Jews toward Lieberman and Kerry, enabling Kerry to take the lead again.

Republicans hastened to denounce Dean, hoping angry Jews would cross over to the Republican side. The Republican camp is now celebrating last November's interim election results that were published this week. The exit polls were conducted by Voter News Service, whose systems crashed on election day. The data indicates that 35 percent of Jews voted for Republican candidates, compared to an average of 25 percent in previous congressional elections.

Howard Dean visited Israel last year and left the impression that he is sympathetic to Israel's cause. He also appointed Steve Grossman, formerly one of the heads of the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, to a senior post in his campaign.

However, Jewish sources believe his utterances reflect his true positions, which are left of the Democratic Party consensus.

Dean is now maintaining a consistently moderate pro-Israeli line. He says the settlements are an issue of negotiation between the sides. As for the assassinations, he says he opposes violence but the Hamas men are soldiers, not civilians. He is against deporting Arafat, and believes Israel can build the separation fence, but not set a border which deviates from the Green Line.