Progress in the Middle East will not come without a substantial U.S. effort to change Palestinian leadership, Sen. Joseph Lieberman told Jewish leaders here last week, two days after launching his bid for the White House.
"The administration is not adequately engaged on the ground," the Connecticut Democrat, who wants to be the first Jewish president, told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
"Progress in the conflict now means constant pressure (and I think the higher level it comes from the better off we’ll be) on the Palestinians to bring forth new leadership" committed to peace, he said.
Lieberman said President George W. Bush, whom he hopes to unseat in 2004, has done nothing to implement his declaration in June that Yasir Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority has been compromised by his failure to curb terrorism.
"He made a good statement but then left the field," Lieberman said of Bush. "Engagement and presence by the administration to implement policy is what is critically necessary."
Lieberman’s warm reception over lunch at Bnai Zion House in Midtown marked his first address as a candidate to a Jewish audience, and provided an opportunity to brief some 80 organizational figures on a recent 10-day fact-finding mission to the Middle East that immediately preceded his campaign kickoff.
Some Israel supporters have criticized Lieberman’s statements supporting Palestinian statehood, decrying conditions in Palestinian villages and casting Saudi Arabia as an ally in the war against terrorism: statements taken to signal his intent to be evenhanded on the Middle East.
Lieberman insisted that he believed the Palestinians were a "long way" from achieving the brand of leadership required to gain U.S. support for their statehood.
"That will not happen unless there is a 100 percent effort by the Palestinians to stop terrorism," he said. "I don’t know what the percentage is now … but it’s outrageously low."
Lieberman said that while he had not sought a meeting with Arafat, he met with other Palestinian leaders who had spoken about attempts at economic reforms and their belief that the uprising launched in September 2000 had not helped their cause.
Stating that the average household income for Palestinians had fallen to about $300 to $400 a year, Lieberman said he had told leaders that "their own aspirations for a better life will only be advanced insofar as they separate their cause from terrorism."
Based on meetings with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as Afghanistan and neighboring states on a previous trip, Lieberman said he believed the Arab and Islamic world was in the midst of "a civil war between a minority who are extreme, fanatical and violent and a majority who are like everyone else in world. They want a better life and want their kids to live better lives than theirs."
The goal of U.S. foreign policy, he said, should be to keep that minority from scoring victories.
After his speech, a leader of the Orthodox Union, Richard Stone, faulted the senator for "understated skepticism" toward the Saudis, whom Stone said were "incorrigible" in their hatred of Jews and Israel.
Lieberman responded that the kingdom’s leaders assured him they were aware of the need to win new friends in America, particularly in Congress, after 9-11.
"They can’t anymore coast on their assumption that relations with the American people are OK," he said, noting that the Saudis have more to fear than Americans from Osama bin Laden. "They itemized the things they know they need to do."
Lieberman said he urged Arab leaders in Bahrain and Qatar to take a stronger stand both in aiding the U.S. war against terrorism and in bringing about a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"They said they understood, and time will tell and their actions will speak," he said.
Asked about a recent poll that found nearly a third of respondents were concerned a Jewish president might place Israel’s interests ahead of America’s, Lieberman said he was "surprised" by the survey, taken by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
"My position has always been in the bipartisan mainstream of American policy toward Israel," he said. "I have made it clear that my obligation is to America first, and my record speaks to that. I’m confident in the fairness of the American people in judging it."
On the subject of his frequent religious pronouncements, and fears that he would erode the constitutional separation of church (or in his case synagogue) and state, Lieberman, who is religiously observant, said he strongly supports the Establishment Clause.
"But on the other hand, I do think faith has played an important role as a source of good behavior, which is important in a democracy because no government is going to tell people what to do all the time," he said.
Lieberman added: "My faith is part of who I am and at the center of my own life but doesn’t determine my public policy."
Addressing political questions from reporters, Lieberman said his Middle East policy was not notably different from that of his expected rivals.
But he claimed to lead the field in experience.
"I have a long range of personal relationships with people in the Middle East, not only in Israel but throughout the Arab world," he said as he left the ballroom. "Hopefully the honor of the presidency would assist me in being a leader who could help maintain stability and bring peace."