Pembroke Pines, Fla. — Sen. Joseph Lieberman sounded an ominous warning last week when he told The Jewish Week that Sen. John Kerry’s failure to speak substantively about Israel during campaign appearances here had weakened his support among Jewish Democrats.
“I was here two or three weeks ago and this question came up a few times, not from the media [but] from people,” said Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat.
“Why isn’t he talking about Israel?” he said voters wanted to know.
Lieberman said it was important to address the issue because some voters are “holding back.”
“This is my third stop today and you hear it one way or another with each question,” he said in an interview after speaking to 600 Jews at a retirement community in Delray Beach.
At the previous stop, one person asked if the Democratic Party was still pro-Israel.
“Only John Kerry can eliminate those doubts,” Lieberman said in the interview.
Lieberman, his party’s vice presidential candidate in 2000, is not alone in urging Kerry to speak about Israel to Florida voters. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) have privately counseled it, as has a group of 50 South Florida Jewish leaders who met with Kerry two weeks ago.
During remarks Monday at the heavily Jewish Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach, Kerry mentioned his many trips to Israel, and promised to do a “better job of protecting” Israel than the Bush administration and of “holding those Arab countries accountable for funding terrorism.”
But the speech, which was similar to one Kerry delivered in May at an Anti-Defamation League conference in Washington, failed to mention the peace process, his ideas for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or his vision for Israel in the future.
In an earlier interview, Andy Meran, 29, a banker from Highland Beach and a registered independent, said he was leaning toward voting for Kerry even though he voted for Bush four years ago.
Meran said it would increase his “comfort level” if Kerry would speak about “where he stands on Israel and how he plans to address that Middle East conflict and bring about peace.”
“I’d love to hear him address it and to address the Jewish community,” he said. … “It would be a major factor [in my decision]; it really would.”
Meran’s wife, Beth, 28, an optometrist, expressed similar sentiments on Kerry and Israel because “I’m a very strong Israel supporter and I would like to hear him” talk about it.
But Biden told The Jewish Week that discussing the details of a Palestinian-Israeli peace plan during a stump speech might be “misconstrued” and therefore cause problems for the candidate.
Observers said the issue of Israel presents Kerry with a thorny dilemma because of divisions in Israel and among American Jews over the best way for Israel to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.
Although Bush has voiced his strong support for Israel, as has Kerry, the president has shied away from substantive comments on the conflict.
Both candidates have said little other than that they support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza pullout plan and the isolation of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
Silent On The Stump
During a rally here Sunday in Broward County, the fourth largest Jewish community in the country with more than 225,000 Jews, Kerry never mentioned Israel even as those close to the stage waved signs distributed by the campaign saying “Jewish Americans for Kerry-Edwards.” Some even sported T-shirts with the names of Kerry and Edwards in Hebrew.
During his 25-minute speech to an estimated 7,000 supporters — many of whom waited nearly two hours to park and take a shuttle bus to the rally at C.B. Smith Park — the Massachusetts senator spoke instead about Social Security and health care, tossing in a few words in Spanish.
Bush, also campaigning in Broward County, touted his recent signing of a bill — vigorously opposed by his own State Department — requiring more extensive data collection on anti-Semitism worldwide.
“This nation will keep watch,” Bush pledged to the crowd. “We will make sure that the ancient impulse of anti-Semitism never finds a home in the modern world.”
But Bush did not address the Middle East conflict in any detail.
Later in the day, the president traveled north to address a rally in West Palm Beach, which also has a large Jewish population. His staff said Bush is making a special effort to woo the Jewish vote in Florida in the belief the effort is paying off.
A recent Washington Post poll found the presidential race in Florida tied at 48 percent, with 3 percent undecided and 1 percent for Ralph Nader. Bush carried the state by just 537 votes in 2000, a controversial victory that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and gave him the election.
Although Jews make up 4 percent of the electorate nationally, they carry enormous clout in this battleground state and a shift toward Bush could be decisive.
“A shift that doesn’t seem large in the universe, of one group or another group … could mean great changes in who leads this country,” Lieberman observed.
Florida, with the fourth largest Jewish population behind Israel, New York and California, has 27 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to capture the presidency. That is the reason why Lieberman said Kerry must shore up his support among Jews, and that ignoring them “is a concern of a lot of Jewish American voters.”
In his remarks Monday, Kerry touted his voting record in the Senate, something Lieberman said he had urged his campaign to do.
“They want to hear it from him because he’s the candidate,” Lieberman said. “We are dealing with a president who has had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel. You can’t say otherwise. And I think John Kerry to reassure people has to be explicit to say what I feel he believes. Forget what I feel — his record says this.”
In his comments Monday, Kerry said: “I have a 100 percent record on every resolution, on every vote, on every appropriation, on everything that has made a difference to Israel’s qualitative military edge. … I’ve had the privilege of flying a jet in Israel, learning firsthand how tight that security is, how close the borders are, how tiny and fragile it is.”
Those are the kind of comments Kerry surrogate Biden made last week to a Jewish audience at the Woodfield Country Club in Boca Raton.
Arlene Finkelstein, a Delray Beach lawyer, said later that she had not realized “how strong [Kerry] supports Israel and that he has been a supporter for 20 years.”
“I didn’t honestly know that,” she said. “I wish [Kerry] had spoken more about it. Bush has been putting out information that he is pro-Israel and that John Kerry is not as much” a supporter.
At the same event, Debbi Rosenblum, 35, a teacher from Boca Raton, said her father “had voted Democratic all his life but was becoming a Bush supporter because of Israel.”
“I screamed at him, my mother screamed at him, and I think that in his heart of hearts he knows [voting for Bush] would be the wrong thing to do,” Rosenblum said. … “What he likes about Bush is that he says Israel has the right to defend itself, and Kerry has not taken a strong stand.”
Correcting A ‘Mistake’
A spokeswoman for Kerry, Lale Mamaux, insisted that the Democratic contender has in fact spoken about Israel at other appearances in this state.
“Two weeks ago at a town hall meeting at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, 15 minutes of his remarks were tailored towards Israel,” she said. “He spoke of his 19 years in the Senate, of his experience in going to Israel, that he has never wavered in his commitment to Israel, and that he has always been a friend and ally. And then he met with 50 rabbis at a private meeting.”
One of those at the meeting, which included Jewish leaders as well, was Rabbi David Steinhardt of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton.
“He spoke for a half-hour about Israel, Iraq and the Middle East and was receptive to questions from the group,” Rabbi Steinhardt said of Kerry. “It was all off the record. … I think he should articulate his position [in public]. We should know where he stands on those things.”
Another of those in attendance, Mark Gilbert, 48, of Boca Raton, a member of the Democratic Party’s National Finance Committee, said members of the group told Kerry that they wished “more people could meet you up close and hear you on Israel. … His response was that we are going to get the message out.”
In his remarks at the Woodfield club, Biden said that both he and Kerry believe it was a “mistake … to not have mentioned Israel in his acceptance speech. We’re trying to figure out how to deal with it now.”
Biden said later in an interview that Kerry supporters are now “making the case” of Kerry’s strong support for Israel.
He said that was being complicated by “the virulent kind of ads” the Republicans are placing in South Florida newspapers. Biden cited a three-page ad that claimed several prominent Democratic senators do not support Israel, which he insisted “is outrageous.”
Former Rep. Larry Smith, a Democrat, told The Jewish Week that several of those quoted in the ad have renounced it and claimed they were misquoted.
Smith said the Florida Democratic Party responded with an ad saying that the party “has been standing alongside Israel since Harry Truman’s courageous support for the creation of the Jewish state. And under John Kerry’s leadership, it will continue to do so for years to come.”