Where’s Joe? That’s the question some American Jews are asking about Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman as the crisis in Israel sinks to its worst levels in decades. Some are concerned that the Connecticut senator (the first Jew in history to run on a major presidential ticket) has not been more out front in defending Israel in the face of increasing criticism from the United Nations and Arab countries over the violence. More than a hundred Palestinians and eight Jews have been killed since the conflict broke out this month. At the same time, Arab-Americans are also denouncing Lieberman for being too pro-Israel.
Some Jewish critics say Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, seems to be callibrating his response so as not to offend Arab-Americans, especially in Michigan: a crucial swing state in the Nov. 7 presidential election.
Some also say they believe Lieberman cannot go much further in making pro-Israel policy statements than his "boss," presidential candidate Al Gore, or the Clinton administration, which continues to push America’s role as an "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, some express disappointment. "I think it’s a legitimate question from the Jewish community to ask where is his voice in the issue," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
On the one hand, Foxman said he understands that Lieberman had to "officially" support the administration’s decision to abstain on a UN Security Council resolution two weeks ago that condemned Israel for excessive force. But, he quickly added, "I think there’s room for [Lieberman] to be heard personally. I would have liked to hear from him that even though he supports the president’s position, that he personally feels that the UN is a biased body that Israel can’t get a fair deal with."
In recent weeks, Foxman has been critical of Lieberman’s continued insertion of God and religious beliefs into public policy issues. Others defended Lieberman’s response, noting that he is caught in a practical political bind: If he says he supports Israel too much, he leaves himself open to dual loyalty charges and a backlash from Arab-Americans.
"For Lieberman to get out ahead of Gore would certainly be inappropriate," said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Another former conference leader said: "For [Lieberman] to come out and be the water carrier for Israel would be counter productive. Why feed into the anti-Semitism: and that’s what he would be doing," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Orthodox Union president Mandell Ganchrow, while declining to say whether he is personally disappointed, indicated that perhaps the senator is being held to unrealistic expectations.
"The truth of the matter is he’s a human being and a politician in a tough race for a tough office. People have a right to have expectations of every candidate, and at the end of the day they have to ask, ‘Did my candidate meet my expectations?’" Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Jews "who are truly disappointed are very, very small in numbers."
I believe that they are hiding their heads in the sand and not recognizing reality," Forman said. "Reality is that [George W.] Bush has been courting the Arab-American vote by saying he’ll be more evenhanded. Gore has not even courted the Arab-American vote. "And three, Nader is out there blasting not Bush but Gore for being too pro-Israel and blasting Israel for being an aggressor state. If anybody in the Jewish community can’t read those tea leaves, they need a serious set of new progressive lenses." Despite the differing perceptions, Lieberman in fact did praise Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and blamed Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat during a Jewish fund-raiser in Los Angeles on Oct. 11, as the Middle East violence worsened.
"We in the United States really have to call upon the leadership of the Palestinian community to stop the violence, to stop the unrest, to be leaders," Lieberman said. "The tragedy here, with all respect, is that Chairman Arafat, particularly, has not seized this moment of opportunity to reach across the table and meet Barak to create the kind of understanding that is clearly in the best interests of all the peoples in the region and in the best interests of the United States."
Political observers noted that Lieberman went far beyond what the Clinton administration was willing to say, his comments even catching his aides by surprise.
Lieberman also said the Middle East was seeing "potentially a tragic moment of a lost, historic opportunity," and praised Barak as someone who had gone further than any other Israeli leader in making concessions to the Palestinians.
The remarks drew sharp criticism from Arab-American leaders. "If you want to be an honest broker, you have to be neutral in your positions so you can gain the trust of both sides in the negotiations," said Ahmad Chebbani, chairman of the Michigan-based American Arab Chamber of Commerce. "When the U.S. administration takes a biased position, as Joe Lieberman has against the Palestinians, that creates a mistrust on behalf of the Palestinian people," he told the Los Angeles Times. Michigan is a battleground state where Arab Americans make up about 4 percent of the population, the largest concentration in the country. Last week a group of influential Arab American political and business leaders endorsed the Republican Bush for president.
The American Muslim Council, a 10-year-old lobbying group, felt the Jewish candidate betrayed them from earlier promises of being evenhanded on Middle East policy.
"I wish that Senator Lieberman would have commented as strongly as we expect him, a man of faith, about the burning of some Palestinians and the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian youth by the powerful Israeli military," said Aly Abuzaakouk, the council’s executive director. "While I do not condone [the killing of two Israeli soldiers] in Ramallah, I call upon our public officials and media to not put the blame on the victims."
Kiki McLean, Lieberman’s press secretary, said Lieberman’s comments were made at the peak of the violence and that he remains dedicated to listening to both sides.
"His commitment will always be to peace and to having an open line in both communities to making sure, as he’s said before, that the United States can continue to be an honest broker," she said. "He’s spoken at great lengths to the tragedy for both communities, for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, the tragic loss of life over this."