Just Like Clinton?

John Kerry is not a great fan of Ariel Sharon. The Massachusetts senator, who this week all but locked up the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, won't say so publicly, of course, but there is enough evidence in that direction from people who know him.

John Kerry is not a great fan of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Massachusetts senator, who this week all but locked up the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, won't say so publicly, of course, but there is enough evidence in that direction from people who know him. Still, as he stood on the stage a few weeks ago in Salem, New Hampshire, replying to a question about his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he didn't hesitate: "I believe Sharon is ready to make peace."

The questioner gave him a perplexed look, trying to identify a type of wink or irony, but Kerry took a sip from his bottled water and asserted that he truly believes that. He cited "important declarations" made by Sharon, especially statements made to the Likud. He recalled that Sharon has spoken of Israel's presence in the territories as an "occupation" and of evacuating settlements.

Kerry added that he understands the reasons for the construction of the separation "fence." He sounded as though he believes that the United States should not oppose the project, as long as the route of the fence follows the Green Line, more or less. A few days ago, in a meeting with Jewish leaders, he was even more resolute in his support for "a legitimate act of self-defense."

His listeners were delighted, but others wondered. Only four months had passed since Kerry, addressing the Arab American Institute's National Leadership Conference, said of the fence: "We do not need another barrier to peace." On that occasion Kerry sounded like he was adamantly opposed to the fence. Did he change his mind?

Anyone who follows Kerry knows that it is sometimes not easy to understand his positions. With regard to the Iraq war, for example, he voted in favor of the war but then started to speak and vote against it. His rivals say he is simply a flip-flopper who adapts his words to the latest trends. His supporters maintain that this is his way of responding to a complex world and that black-and-white replies sometimes clash with a changing reality. "He's like [former U.S. president Bill] Clinton on this," says one of his advisers - meaning intelligent, apprehending complexity, going into details. "Right, exactly like Clinton," one of Kerry's adversaries agrees - meaning evasive, spineless, indecisive.

Kerry's major statement to date on foreign policy was delivered on December 3, 2003, before a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In that address, Kerry was sharply critical of President George Bush's policy on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. His main argument, which he reiterated several times: The administration must display greater involvement in an effort to resolve the conflict. "It's astonishing to me that we are not picking up somewhere near where we left off at Taba," he said, referring to the peace talks there at the end of 2000. He added that at Taba, "most of the difficult issues were resolved, in many ways."

That statement would not elicit agreement from American experts and diplomats. Many of those among them who were interviewed for this article asked not to be mentioned by name, since they view themselves as candidates for posts in a Kerry administration. Most of them spoke in one voice. The gist of what they had to say has been voiced openly by Prof. Steven Spiegel, whose excellent book on the United States and the Arab-Israeli conflict (from Truman to Carter) calls for a second book (Reagan to Bush), which may yet be written.

Spiegel warns against a tendency to seize on every statement by a Democratic candidate and over-interpret it. The bottom line, he avers, can be stated very briefly: "Clinton's policy." Anyone who thinks that it is better to forgo active American involvement should prefer Bush. Anyone who is ready for heightened involvement, even if this sometimes means Israeli concessions, should prefer the Democratic candidate, "irrespective of any particular remark."

However, as everyone knows, "remarks" sometimes create problems, especially among those who are leery of Kerry. For some of them, his reference to Taba lit a red light. Kerry is by nature a left-winger, they observe, and from his point of view, "American involvement" will mean mainly "pressure on Israel." Some pointed to concrete indications of this inclination. For example, the strong position of Rand Beers as Kerry's foreign affairs adviser. There are those who say that it was Beers who introduced "Taba" into the equation and that he takes a distinctly dovish stance in regard to Israel. Others recalled Kerry's close relations with a Massachusetts activist who supports solutions "of the [Yossi] Beilin kind." And there were those who took note of a passage in Kerry's book "A Call to Service" that the Saudi initiative contains the "potential, even if flawed, breakthrough for peace."

Beers is not the only member of Kerry's staff whose inclinations are generating suspicions among some of Israel's friends (mainly on the right, of course). It's claimed that he and others on the staff might show an interest in proposals to "internationalize" the conflict, which are currently being tossed around by Democratic think tanks. Kerry's clear desire for greater cooperation with the international community will make it more likely for him to be attentive to European proposals that will not be acceptable to an Israeli government - certainly not the one currently in power.

Rand Beers' losing counterpart is Leon Firth. If Al Gore had won in 2000, Firth would now be occupying the chair of the national security adviser in place of Condoleezza Rice. And if Governor Howard Dean had become the Democratic candidate for 2004, Firth would again have been a candidate for that post. "All the Democrats feel that Bush was wrong when he decided to become less involved," Firth says. At the same time, he thinks that the Democrats, too, place most of the blame for the situation on Yasser Arafat.

John F. Kennedy, whom Kerry admires and sees as a role model, once said that wealthy Jews in New York offered to finance his campaign if he would let them run American foreign policy for the coming four years. He said he refused, of course - but allegations about American foreign policy being run by Jews have not disappeared since then: Jews, of course, ran the Clinton administration, and neoconservative Jews are running Bush's foreign policy. So goes the argument.

Kerry, too, will be open to this contention. His grandfather was Jewish, but converted to Christianity, and he has a brother who converted to Judaism. He is surrounded by Jewish advisers and donors. Many in the Jewish establishment are embracing him warmly and hope that at the critical moment this will have be effective, "for the benefit of the American and Israeli interest," as they are careful to phrase it. At the same time, they do not identify in Kerry the sentimental religious approach that Clinton (and Carter) harbored with regard to Israel. He perhaps understands that Israel has a special status, but doesn't necessarily feel it in his gut.

A week ago, one of Kerry's aides outlined his viewpoint: repulsed by terrorism, against the settlements, ready to accept a fence along the Green Line, against Arafat, for a Palestinian state, against the use of excessive force against the population in the territories, in favor of continuation of the negotiations, and in general a supporter of the "road map."

What about Israeli unilateral disengagement?

The aide: Kerry prefers dialogue, but it's hard to see him being against the evacuation of settlements.

That's all very well, but what's the difference between these positions and those of the Bush administration?

True, the aide replied, but Kerry wants to be more involved.

Indeed, Kerry has consistently promised that, if elected, he will appoint a special envoy to the peace process. That's his only concrete promise, and it, too, developed as a kind of backward flip-flop. At first he mentioned "Carter or Baker" as possible envoys and raised a storm among those who don't necessarily see those two as Israel's greatest friends. Then he moved to "Carter or Clinton" - the latter is mentioned frequently as someone who might get involved in the conflict again, and he is also more acceptable to Israel's friends. Finally, about a week ago, Kerry landed on solid ground. Dennis Ross is one of his candidates. Firth said two weeks ago that the mention of Clinton could be treated as more of a "nice idea" than an operative plan.

In any case, plans announced by presidents who haven't yet been elected should be treated with caution. After all, in 1992 Clinton himself attacked the first President Bush for his policy of appeasement toward China, but eventually adjusted himself so well to the idea that he declared the Chinese to be a "strategic partner" of the United States. And the current President Bush, who on the eve of the 2000 elections stated that American foreign policy should be more "modest" and less interventionist, is today conducting a foreign policy of almost unprecedented ambition.