NEW YORK - Ed Koch will spend a lot of time next month on the New York-Florida shuttle. The former mayor of New York and one of the most prominent American Jews, Koch is setting out to persuade the Jews of Florida that this time they should vote for George W. Bush. Even he himself, a sworn Democrat who was elected on his party's ticket for a number of public positions over decades, has been persuaded that this time it is necessary to cross the line and support the Republican candidate.
Koch, who will turn 80 in December, is considered the classic Jewish Democrat. In his most prominent position as mayor of New York for three straight terms between 1978 and 1989, and before that as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he toed the traditional party line and was punctilious about all the domestic issues that are so important to Democrats, especially the Jews among them.
Now he has concluded that all these domestic issues need to make way for only one question - the war on terror.
"While I don't agree with the president on any single domestic issue, ranging from taxes to social security and everything in between, I do agree with him on the single issue of fighting international terrorism," he said in an interview with Haaretz last week. "I simply don't believe that the Democratic Party or [John] Kerry have the stomach to fight - as long as it takes - international terrorism."
In a single sentence, Ed Koch sums up the entire principle behind President George W. Bush's re-election campaign: the idea that only Bush is strong enough to fight terror, and therefore all the rest is unimportant, at least this time around, when America is recovering from an attack and is in the midst of a war.
"It has nothing to do with patriotism or courage, it has to do with your attitude, where you are," said Koch. "He [Kerry] doesn't believe that that issue is as important as I believe it to be. His whole pitch, his whole thought, is business as usual, and that some way or other the terrorists will go away. They are not going to go away."
He himself has definite ideas about how to deal toughly with terror, and also about how to win the battle in Iraq.
"I'd say give Falluja 48 hours notice," Koch declares. "Every civilian must leave because we are turning Falluja into a free-fire zone to eliminate the people that are engaged in terror. After that I would use the 500-pound bombs."
He pins a lot of the blame for what is happening on the Europeans, who are refusing to take part in the effort in Iraq. He thus does not believe Kerry's promise to bring in the Europeans to play a significant role in stabilizing Iraq. "How? With the casualties that are taking place they should be running in to help us, as we have saved them in so many other occasions."
Nor does he buy the theory that it was the president's unilateral approach that pushed away the Europeans.
"It wasn't unilateral - that's pure BS," he says.
There are other Democrats who have crossed over to supporting the president in this election, the most prominent among them being Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who starred at the recent Republican Convention. But Ed Koch is of special importance, first and foremost because he is a New York symbol, a beloved and esteemed former mayor of one of the most Democratic cities in the United States - and one of the most hostile cities toward George Bush.
His move to support President Bush is important moral support for the Republicans, but beyond that, Koch is also important as a significant force in the Jewish community. Though he has not been directly active in politics since he lost the position of mayor (in primaries, to David Dinkins), he has continued to write, make speeches and comment, and definitely still constitutes an important player in politics in general and in Jewish politics in particular.
In his clear, sometimes blunt language, Koch makes it clear that in his opinion not only is it worthwhile for the Jews to vote for Bush, it is also an obligation.
"If they don't [vote for Bush] they are ungrateful," says Koch, and then adds that he intends to tell the Jews of Florida: "You owe President Bush. If Bush hadn't stood up in the [United Nations] Security Council, in the [General] Assembly, Israel would have been destroyed. I don't believe that the Democrats would have done the same job."
The former mayor believes that it is not impossible that the Europeans will try to offer the United States support in the battle in Iraq in return for the withdrawal of Washington's unqualified support for Israel, and in such a case, he fears that the Democrats would not withstand the pressure.
"I don't know how they would respond," says Koch. "I know how Bush would respond: `No, I don't desert an ally.' "
He defines Bush as the best president in history for the Jews and for the state of Israel, with Ronald Reagan in second place and Bill Clinton in third. He says that it is worthwhile for American Jews to vote for Bush primarily because he is good for America, and then because this would be an appropriate way to repay the president who has been so supportive of the state of Israel.
A survey by the American Jewish Committee conducted last week found that so far, the American Jewish public is not buying this idea. According to the survey, Bush, who received 19 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2000 election, will receive 25 percent this time. Most Jews will continue to support the Democratic candidate, and Ed Koch thinks this is a mistake on their part.
Not only is Bush better for Israel, in his opinion, but Kerry is a problematic candidate. Koch clutches at Kerry's suggestion to send former president Jimmy Carter or former secretary of state James Baker to the Middle East as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians. This suggestion aroused ire in the Jewish community because both are perceived as supporters of the Arab side, and it was immediately removed from the Democratic candidate's agenda.
But Koch does not think this was a slip of the tongue on Kerry's part, or an innocent mistake. "There are lots of people who hate Israel," says Koch, and Kerry "was looking for their support, in my opinion."
Koch himself is considered by everyone to be a faithful friend of Israel. On the wall of his office at a large law firm in which he is a partner there is a framed picture from 1991, in which he is seen getting hit on the head by a rock during a solidarity visit to Israel at the time of the first intifada. Next to the photo, in which the stone is seen fragmenting on his pate - he needed nine stitches afterward - there is a letter from prime minister Yitzhak Shamir noting, jokingly, that Koch was the first American to have been attacked by stones in Jerusalem.
It is Koch's belief that the Democratic Party of which he is a member is now controlled by the "Deaniacs," a disparaging term for the supporters of Howard Dean, who represents the leftist lean in the party. Kerry, too, he believes, has adopted a radical leftist line against the war with the aim of winning the votes of Dean's supporters, and therefore people like Koch cannot support their party's candidate this time. He guesses that Kerry's defeat will be significant - not a close race but a clear loss, by 5 percent.
But while he looks like a walking billboard for President Bush, and although he does not spare for a moment his criticism of the Democrats and their candidate for the presidency, Ed Koch declares that he intends to return home after the elections.
"I'm a Democrat, I'm for Hillary," he says, referring to the US senator and wife of Bill. Koch relates proudly that when Hillary Clinton won the race for senator, he stood near her on her victory night, and she urged him to get closer and be in the historic photograph. The photo now hangs in his office, and on it there is a dedication from the senator in which she thanks him for his support and backing.
Koch himself promises that in 2008 he will be there again, at Hillary's side, though this time as the winner in the race for the presidency of the United States. But before that he has to run to Florida to ensure that it will be George Bush who will be in the White House during the next four years, until Hillary Clinton arrives.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now