After vanquishing his rivals in a stunning Super Tuesday near sweep, de facto Democratic nominee John Kerry now faces a debate over foreign policy whose battle lines are still being drawn.
The challenge, as some observers see it, is how to bash President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, without attacking his stance on Israel, which has proven an asset to the Republican chief executive among Jewish voters.
Jewish voters turned out in droves to support Kerry in particularly high numbers — as much as 65 percent, according to early exit polls — as he won nine of 10 state primaries.
In New York, the Massachusetts senator won an estimated 72 percent of the Jewish vote, with his closest rival, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, winning only 17 percent. Edwards dropped out of the race the following day.
Winning New York with more than 60 percent of the overall vote, Kerry fared even better among Jews Catholics, 64 percent of whom supported the veteran lawmaker here, along with 58 percent of protestants.
But it remains to be seen whether Kerry can retain that level of Jewish support in the November contest against Bush, who has earned high marks for standing by Israel while denouncing the Palestinian leadership as corrupt and unfit peace partners.
Although he has served in the Senate for 19 years, and has a history of supporting pro-Israel legislation, Kerry has only begun to articulate detailed policy positions on foreign affairs after orchestrating an unexpected surge to the head of the Democratic field.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Kerry blasted Bush for a “reckless and ideological foreign policy,” but did not go into detail.
But he touched on more Middle East bases than at any point in his campaign during a meeting with 50 Jewish leaders in Manhattan last week. Kerry’s wide-ranging remarks on such matters as the failure of the Oslo Accords and incitement in the Arab world were well received.
“What he had to do is separate his attacks on Bush’s foreign from his policy on Israel,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “So what we heard at the meeting is that he’s trying to align himself almost entirely behind Bush’s foreign policy; he talked about his understanding of [Ariel] Sharon’s [positions], about the fence. He was laying out his positions to those who care first and foremost about Israel.”
To do well in the Jewish community, said Foxman, “he has to position himself close to Bush’s policies on Israel.”
Rep. Anthony Weiner of Queens, a leader on Israel issues in the House, was impressed by Kerry’s command of the issues.
“This was the first time I heard him do Jewish,” Weiner said. “I think a lot of people were impressed.”
When Weiner asked Kerry about U.S. aid to Egypt, whose government-controlled press is often hostile to America and Israel, Kerry told the local congressman he favored using aid as leverage to effect change.
Suri Kasirer, a Democratic consultant who is part of a Kerry Jewish advisory group, said that after impressing the influential Jewish leaders at that meeting, the candidate now needed to “magnify what he said to that group to the larger Jewish community, the way he talked about not compromising Israel in any way.”
“He believes in engagement and wants to bring all the parties to the table,” Kasirer said, “but he knows you can’t bring people to the table if there is no partner.”
Advancing his message may be difficult, however, once the cash-flushed Bush-Cheney campaign begins to unleash an onslaught of ads, some of which will be aimed at Kerry’s record.
“There is a lot of confusion as to where John Kerry really stands,” said Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition, spelling out one likely attack scenario. “On the one hand he says the security fence was a barrier to peace before an Arab group, and then he supports the fence when he talks to Jewish leaders. First he says Jim Baker and Jimmy Carter would be his [Middle East] envoys, then he says he was just kidding, and Dennis Ross and Sandy Berger would be his choice.
“He’s been on both sides of some very important issues. This is in contrast to the strong, concise, principled leadership of President Bush.”
The president himself in an early attack last week took a swipe at several positions, including the war on Iraq, saying Kerry had reversed himself. The oft-touted matter of Kerry’s expressed preference for Mideast envoys is likely to continue dogging him.
Although he has said the line about Carter and Baker — who have been panned by some pro-Israel activists — was inserted into a speech by aides, a newly emerged transcript of the address at the Center for Foreign Policy last fall seems to show Kerry reiterating the idea in a question-and-answer session. That transcript is now making the e-mail rounds.
Jews across the nation are overwhelmingly Democrats but have shown an increasing propensity to vote Republican, especially for president.
Because the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was perceived among many Israel supporters as trying too hard to cement an agreement between the Jewish state and the Palestinians before he left office, Kerry may have to contend with the positive image of a current president who has taken a more passive approach.
Early in his administration, Bush branded Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat a supporter of terrorism and has refused to meet with him.
Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, conceded that Kerry could not gain ground with knee-jerk attacks on Bush’s Middle East policy.
“You don’t make policy by saying that everything Bush does is bad,” said Forman. “Saying that everything Clinton did was wrong is their rationale for not doing anything. That’s not policy, it’s pique.”
But Weiner insisted there was sufficient ammunition for Kerry to fault Bush’s Middle East policy.
“The statements [about Arafat] that he made in the Rose Garden were articulated well, and it’s the correct position as it relates to the conflict,” said Weiner. “But he’s had many lapses since then, such as presenting a check for direct aid to Abu Mazen, withholding loan guarantees over the security fence, and the administration’s inexplicable love affair with the Saudis.”
A former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Seymour Reich, predicted that Jews would not be swayed by attacks on the president’s Middle East policy.
“[Kerry] might suggest that Bush could be more proactive, that Israel and the Palestinians can’t achieve peace without help and Bush is laying back because of the election year,” Reich said. “I don’t think that will be effective. On Israel it will be a draw because both sides are saying the right things.” Reich predicted the Jewish community will see little difference between the two on Israel and thus would take domestic concerns more seriously.
“The issues for Jewish voters may be on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court,” said Reich. “That’s where the community will undoubtedly be more supportive of Kerry. But on Israel it’s a draw.”
James D. Besser contributed to this report.