Howard Dean's Israel problem

When he said the U.S. must be "evenhanded" in the Middle East, rivals and critics accused him of selling out the Jewish state -- even though his position is similar to Bush's and his campaign co-chair used to run AIPAC.

Published September 23, 2003 8:55PM (EDT)

Last Saturday, John Kerry gleefully predicted that Democratic rival Howard Dean was "imploding" over Israel. A meme was spreading in the Democratic Party that the former Vermont governor is insufficiently Zionist, that his views represent the antiwar fringe that's said to constitute his base. An Israeli newspaper had predicted that Jewish donors would shun him. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote him an admonitory letter. Political strategists waxed catastrophic.

What made the uproar so odd is that Dean's Israel policy hardly differs from that of Bush and his main Democratic challengers. His campaign is being co-chaired by Steven Grossman, who from 1992 to 1996 was president of AIPAC, America's most powerful pro-Israel lobby. While Dean vehemently criticizes Bush on a range of issues, when it comes to Israel, he told an audience at Iowa's Drake University in February, "The administration's guiding principles in the Middle East are the right ones. Terrorism against Israel must end. A two-state solution is the only path to eventual peace, but Palestinian territory cannot have the capability of being used as a platform for attacking Israel."

"His position on the Middle East is a right-of-center position," says Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. Yet Dean has been cast as the left-of-center candidate, and the self-propelling narrative of the current campaign ensures that nearly everything he says will be interpreted according to that conventional wisdom. And few issues in American politics are as sensitive as Israel, making a mere hint of dissent from the AIPAC line politically hazardous, even for a candidate whose campaign is being run by an AIPAC vet.

Actually, it's unclear how much Dean has strayed from AIPAC orthodoxy. Some of his recent comments about Israel seem aimed at the liberal Democrats fueling his insurgency -- many of whom disagree with his original position. His campaign managers, though, insist the current fracas is simply a result of Dean's extemporaneous remarks being misunderstood and blown out of proportion. Either way, Dean is seen as having deviated from the narrow parameters in which Israel can be discussed in American politics. That threatens to slow his momentum, dampen his fundraising and tarnish his political reputation.

Dean's Israel troubles began at a Sept. 3 campaign event in Santa Fe, N.M. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said that day, "It's not our place to take sides." Then, on Sept. 9, he told the Washington Post that America should be "evenhanded" in its approach to the region.

The media and the Democratic establishment reacted as if Dean had called Yasser Arafat a man of peace. On Sept. 10, 34 Democratic members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, wrote Dean an open letter. "American foreign policy has been -- and must continue to be -- based on unequivocal support for Israel's right to exist and to be free from terror ..." they wrote. "It is unacceptable for the U.S. to be 'evenhanded' on these fundamental issues ... This is not a time to be sending mixed messages; on the contrary, in these difficult times we must reaffirm our unyielding commitment to Israel's survival and raise our voices against all forms of terrorism and incitement."

The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Dean had badly damaged his own campaign. "Sources in the Jewish community say that Dean has wrecked his chances of getting significant contributions from Jews ..." the paper wrote. "Many believe Dean's statement will drive more Jews toward Lieberman and Kerry, enabling Kerry to take the lead again."

According to the Dean campaign, the uproar involved semantics, not substance. "Here's what I think happened," says Grossman, Dean's campaign co-chair. "Howard made some comments in someone's backyard in New Mexico that were shorthand, if you will, for some of his Middle East views. In the course of those remarks and some others in the subsequent days, he used some language that gave people consternation, and it was immediately jumped on by Joe Lieberman and John Kerry that somehow Howard Dean was breaking faith with this 55-year tradition of the United States' special relationship with Israel, which is patently absurd."

Cole, though, sees more than simple misstatement in Dean's comments; he interprets Dean's rhetoric as signaling a subtle ideological shift. Last November, Dean told the Jewish newspaper the Forward that his views on Israel mirrored AIPAC's, not the more liberal group Americans for Peace Now, which favors a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians and the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Now, says Cole, "I think that he may have been signaling that he's moving closer to the Americans for Peace Now position, and that is a genuine shift." It's a shift that aligns Dean with the mainstream of American Jewry. As Cole notes, recent polls show that more than 50 percent of American Jews share Americans for Peace Now's views, compared with around a third who share AIPAC's unequivocal support for the Israeli government.

Yet if Dean was moving even slightly to the left on Israel, he quickly backtracked, distancing himself from any damaging suggestion of evenhandedness. The same day the Democrats reprimanded him, Dean appeared on CNN and defended Israel's extrajudicial assassinations of Palestinian militants. "There is a war going on in the Middle East," he said, "and members of Hamas are soldiers in that war, and, therefore, it seems to me, that they are going to be casualties if they are going to make war."

To a casual listener, this might have sounded like an affirmation of support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security policies. After all, Israel's targeted killings are widely denounced as violations of the 1949 Geneva conventions, and even the Bush administration has occasionally criticized them.

Yet Dean's opponents quickly seized on his comments as further evidence that he is somehow anti-Israel, professing shock and outrage that Dean had dignified members of Hamas with the word "soldier," instead of calling them terrorists.

On Sept. 12, Kerry issued an indignant press release: "In the wake of Howard Dean's statements last week on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Democrats wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and dismissed his comments as the flippant remarks of an inexperienced politician. But in going out of his way to term members of Hamas as 'soldiers,' Governor Dean insults the memory of every innocent man, woman, and child killed by these suicidal murderers."

Grossman dismisses Kerry's comments as political opportunism. "Howard basically said these are combatants, they are fighting a war of terrorism, and they should be hunted down and given no quarter," he said. Hardly the position of a stooge for the PLO.

Whatever Dean meant, though, some observers say he hurt himself. Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic political consultant who worked on the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, says Kerry's attack was justified and that Dean's comments created an "an extraordinary imbroglio."

Last November, Sheinkopf was quoted in an article in the Forward applauding Dean for naming Grossman to run his campaign. In that article, Dean disavowed Americans for Peace Now, saying, "At one time the Peace Now view was important but now Israel is under enormous pressure. We have to stop terrorism before peace negotiations."

According to Sheinkopf, Dean's recent comments represent an abandonment of that line. "He keeps changing his position," Sheinkopf says. "Now he's calling Hamas soldiers. Either they're terrorists or soldiers. The nomenclature is clear. His language legitimizes terrorists and puts him far out on the left."

If Dean's Israel position really puts him far out on the left, it proves that not showing unequivocal support for the Jewish state remains a political poison pill -- for members of either political party.

Last year, former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., learned that supporting the Palestinians can be a career-killer when pro-Israel donors poured more than $1 million into the coffers of Denise Majette, who successfully challenged the five-term incumbent in the Democratic primary.

Dean, though, is no McKinney. After all, according to Grossman, the candidate remains in sync with the goals of Bush's Israel policy. Dean's only real criticism of the president is that he hasn't given the region enough sustained attention. "Bush made a huge mistake early on by absenting himself from [the region] for 18 months," Grossman says. "He walked away from the Middle East and acted like the Middle East didn't exist, while the Middle East was exploding in a cauldron of violence. Why? Because Bill Clinton had spent so much time there, and Bush was going to avoid doing anything Bill Clinton had done. Frankly, it was an immature decision. Howard, in contrast, has said, 'I will be involved in this issue from day one because it is critical to the American national interest.'"

In fact, Dean is selling his Israel policy as a continuation of Clinton's, and has called on Bush to send Clinton as an envoy to Israel. In a Sept. 12 letter to the Anti-Defamation League's Foxman, he wrote: "I will follow in the footsteps of Bill Clinton from day one of a Dean Administration and make every effort to bring peace to this troubled region."

That letter, written in response to Foxman's earlier message of concern about Dean's Zionist bona fides, said that, while the United States should play the "honest broker" in Israel's dispute with the Palestinians, it wouldn't try to extract concessions from Israel.

"There is no difference between our positions when it comes to my unequivocal support for Israel's right to exist and to be free from terror," he assured Foxman. "As I have said before, the United States must remain committed to the special, long-standing relationship we have with Israel, including providing the resources necessary to guarantee Israel's long-term defense and security ... I believe, however, that the United States has another important role to play in the region -- that of an honest broker at the negotiating table -- with the trust of both sides and able to facilitate direct talks between the parties ... We are also in agreement that only the Palestinians and the Israelis themselves can make and keep the peace and work out the specifics of a lasting agreement. Peace cannot be imposed by outside parties. On the issue of settlements, both parties have acknowledged that Israel will have to remove a number of settlements. How many and which those are will have to be determined as part of a final agreement negotiated by the parties."

One of Dean's only statements in favor of putting pressure on Israel was issued in support of a Bush administration policy. Last week, the White House announced it was deducting money that Israel spends building West Bank settlements from American loan guarantees -- essentially saying that America won't fund illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt opposed the move, placing themselves to Bush's right, while Kerry and Dean supported it. "Without having read the specific language of the Bush administration's decision, it seems in keeping with my view on conditioning the amount of our loan guarantees," Dean e-mailed the Forward.

No serious candidate took a position to the left of Bush. Indeed, it's precisely because there's no real leftist alternative that Dean's been cast in that role. After all, it's unlikely that Dean's critics ever really thought that he meant to honor members of Hamas when he called them "soldiers," or that, if elected, he'd jettison America's alliance with Israel. But a campaign is always more about images and impressions than carefully formulated positions, and that's where Dean has blundered.

As Sheinkopf says, most voters don't know or care who former AIPAC president Grossman is, or, for that matter, that Dean's wife, Dr. Judy Steinberg Dean, and children are Jewish. "They do know that there are troops in Iraq," he says. "They know Americans have been attacked by terrorists on their own soil and they know that Howard Dean calls terrorists 'soldiers.' It's arrogant to believe people are following every word. What they're following is the nightly news cycle saying Howard Dean is soft on terror."

Yet that nightly news cycle, and the way real issues evanesce in it, might also work in Dean's favor, making potential backers forget all about this interlude. Sheinkopf, for all his criticism of Dean, doesn't think his comments on Israel will affect his fundraising among Jews. "If he appears to be ahead, the money's going to keep coming in from Jews and others. Funders tend to fund winners, not losers." No matter how many gaffes he makes, then, no one can say Dean's imploding till the money dries up.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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Bill Clinton Cynthia Mckinney George W. Bush Howard Dean Joe Lieberman John F. Kerry D-mass.