WASHINGTON - One of last events in Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's barnstorming tour of Iowa wil be a meeting with members of the Jewish community at a Des Moines deli on Sunday. So far, Republican candidates have held no events specifically for the Jewish community in that state, which on Tuesday will kick off the process of selecting the party's candidate for president. Iowa's population of three million includes only about 7,500 Jews, and most of them are Democrats.
Bud Hockenberg, a prominent Iowan Republican political activist and self-described "fourth-generation Jew in Des Moines," seems to enjoy the disproportional attention his state gets during the elections. For years, Iowa was considered a "red" state. But now it is split between the Democratic east and the Republican west. And even the Republican race here is unusual this year, due to the high proportion of undecided voters - about 60 percent.
This year, Hockenberg noted, social conservatives are "divided between three or four candidates." Additionally, these conservatives might be more pragmatic this time. In 2008, "conservatives who care about faith, who care about marriages, who are against abortion ... if you disagreed with them, they would not vote for you," he said. "This time, they have such a distrust of Obama that they have this 'ABO' - 'Anyone But Obama.'"
The caucuses are a complex process in which only about 80,000 to 130,000 Iowans participate. They last two and a half to three hours, and the results are announced that same evening.
"The importance of Iowa is in so-called 'retail politics,'" Hockenberg said. "Candidates have to meet people and their records are very carefully examined. For example, Ron Paul - recently it came out he is against Israel, and not concerned about Iran. These two positions will weaken him."
Hockenberg dismissed claims that Israel shouldn't be an issue in these elections.
"I can understand the attitude of Israeli officials that it's better to be under the radar, and 'let's not make it an issue,'" he said. "But it is an issue, because there is some concern about the attitude of Obama's administration toward the State of Israel. There are Republicans such as myself that feel he is not supportive and that it might cause a decline of support for the State of Israel. That's the reason it's being raised.
"The Israeli ambassador has to stay neutral, of course, but his country needs strong support of Israel by the U.S. mainstream population. And there is the reason that is always mentioned: that Israel is strategic ally, it provides significant military technology to the U.S., and now with the Muslim Brotherhood strong in northern Africa, the only country that is safe for stationing military equipment and personnel is Israel.
"Israel will be an issue in this campaign, with this administration's record. Whether it's good or bad, history will have to decide.
"Besides, there are 40 million Christian evangelicals in America, out of a population of 300 million. And their belief is that Judaism is the root and Christianity is the branch that grows from the root, and the root is the Jewish State of Israel. If there is no Israel, how can their faith be redeemed?"
Do they think Arabs can't read?
While Israeli officials hint at concern over the way Israel has become part of the political game, Palestinian officials have reason to be even more dismayed by the way the Republican presidential hopefuls discuss their cause. Gingrich calling the Palestinians an "invented people" was the most vivid example, but other candidates have been critical as well. The only one who was described as "pro-Palestinian" by a former aide was Rep. Ron Paul - whose foreign policy is based on the premise that the U.S. shouldn't meddle in other countries' affairs.
Maen Areikat, the PLO representative in the U.S., doesn't rush to embrace Paul as pro-Palestinian. "He is certainly for less intervention of the U.S. and no foreign aid, including Israel," Areikat noted. "Many translate it as an anti-Israeli position. I think the relationship between this country and Israel is very strong and will not be changed easily by statements of one of the candidates."
But he is upset by the candidates' attitude toward the Palestinians.
"I think it's unfortunate that many candidates are using the Palestinian question and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a topic to improve their chances," he said. "They should focus more on the domestic issues, issues that are of concern to the American people.
"They also have to keep in mind the impact of their statements. They think they can make these statements, and that people in the Muslim and Arab world do not read. They are not following the damage these statements are causing the credibility and standing of the U.S. all over the world.
"Of course, not always can what we hear from candidates be implemented. It's all domestic politics; it has nothing to do with the real world. When these candidates are in office, they will realize that the elections are one thing and governing is another. But I wish they could realize earlier that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a real conflict, and it's in the best interest of the U.S. to put an end to this conflict, instead of fanning the fire."
But just last Friday, I reminded him, Obama signed a bill that conditions aid to the Palestinians on their giving up their UN membership bid.
"This is very unfortunate, to try to punish the Palestinians for resorting to international organizations such as the UN," he said. "We felt this is a legitimate venue, a diplomatic, political, nonviolent venue, that the Palestinians are entitled to explore. Many countries in the world have resorted in the past to the UN with political objectives.
"I don't see why Congress and the administration would impose restrictions on support to the Palestinian people. This is going to be counterproductive. It weakens the clout of the UN, and it weakens the ability of the U.S. to play the role of an honest broker in this conflict.
"There is a vacuum and uncertainty and absence of a serious political effort on the part of the international community to end the conflict. And we are seeing the Israeli government use this vacuum to continue establishing facts on the ground with more settlements. They are clearly and openly not interested in resolution of this conflict. We've seen statements of the Israeli foreign minister that President [Mahmoud] Abbas is not a partner. They did it before with the late chairman Yasser Arafat."
The Israeli leadership claims the Palestinians are the ones avoiding talks now. And then we have Abbas meeting Amna Muna.
Areikat seems uncomfortable discussing Muna, who in 2001 lured an Israeli teen to the West Bank, where he was murdered by Palestinians, but was recently released by Israel as part of the Shalit deal. "Receiving prisoners released from Israeli jail has always taken place in the past," he said. "The Israeli government approved her release along with other Palestinians who spent time in Israeli jails. They received approval of the political and security establishment in Israel.
"Trying to focus on this particular encounter that took place in Turkey, because she was expelled - President Abbas met there with all the prisoners that were released - it does not change the fact that the president and the Palestinian leadership are committed to peaceful resolution of the conflict and adopting nonviolent means to end this conflict."
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