Taking Sides

Taking Sides

Democrats who want to deny Howard Dean the party’s 2004 presidential nomination have a new issue: They are complaining that the front-runner is insufficiently unequivocal in his support for Isr


Democrats who want to deny Howard Dean the party’s 2004 presidential nomination have a new issue: They are complaining that the front-runner is insufficiently unequivocal in his support for Israel. But the criticisms have more to do with domestic politics than international affairs, and members of Congress who attack Dean’s relatively moderate statements regarding relations between Israel and Palestine are signaling that it is no easier to debate Middle East policy in the Democratic Party than in George Bush’s GOP.

The controversy started with Dean’s September 3 statement that if the United States wants to get Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table, “it’s not our place to take sides.” Dean’s self-described “evenhanded” approach was hardly radical, nor was his echoing of Israeli moderates when he said that “enormous numbers of [Israeli] settlements” on the West Bank and Gaza Strip must be removed in order to achieve peace. Yet Dean’s foes responded as if he had endorsed Hamas. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman expressed concern that Dean was breaking with “a half a century of American foreign policy.” Massachusetts Senator John Kerry questioned the former Vermont governor’s capacity to manage US foreign policy. And House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California signed a letter with thirty-three Congressional Democrats that said, “It is unacceptable for the U.S. to be ‘evenhanded’ on these fundamental issues.”

Dean responded by saying his stance was “exactly the same as Bill Clinton’s,” and that “the position that I take on Israel is exactly the position the United States has taken for fifty-four years.” That’s in line with a campaign in which Dean has gone so far as to say his commitment to Israel is “visceral.” His fundraising chair is Steven Grossman, former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a group aligned with Israeli hawks. Asked in 2002 whether he favored the AIPAC line or that of the more dovish Americans for Peace Now, Dean said, “My view is closer to AIPAC’s view.” Indeed, Dean’s Middle East positions have consistently been closer to Lieberman’s than to those of Representative Dennis Kucinich–so much so that a widely circulated Internet article was titled “Dean Not Progressive on Mideast.”

Unlike Jesse Jackson in 1988, Dean proposes no great shift in US policy on Israel. The attacks from Lieberman and Kerry are rank political posturing. More troubling is the condemnation by Pelosi and other party leaders of even a hint of “evenhandedness.” That smacks of the old game of positioning Democrats to the right of the Republicans on Middle East policy–in a perceived contest for Jewish-American votes and contributions. The problem with this approach, as Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes points out, is that “this suggests you cannot be firmly committed to Israel and question [Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon’s policies. If that’s where Democrats put themselves, they don’t leave room to debate Bush on the issue.” They’ll also have a tougher time appealing to American voters–73 percent of whom, according to a recent University of Maryland poll, prefer that the United States not take sides.

Quote of the Week:

“How about a ticket of John Kerry and Wesley Clark: Two Vietnam veterans against two chickenhawks,” muses author Anne Lamott.

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