How would Bush deal with Mideast, other Jewish issues

WASHINGTON– How will Jews in America be impacted if George W. Bush becomes the next president?

Jewish political observers already are carefully scrutinizing Bush's prospective cabinet members in the hope of gleaning how they would direct international and domestic policies.

Of particular concern is how those potential nominees will deal with the current Mideast crisis plus various issues the Jewish community is involved in at home.

The next president, whether it's Bush or Vice President Al Gore, will face a shaky political climate in the Middle East as well as numerous divisive issues in the United States, including those related to the separation of church and state.

Just as significant, the next president may be in a position to choose as many as three new members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

While cautious not to anoint Bush the winner until Gore concedes, Jewish activists and analysts were beginning to speculate this week on the new and familiar faces that could be includedistration.

"The first thing George W. Bush has to do is pick a team," said Diana Aviv, vice president for public policy for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American federations.

"In many ways, his philosophies are going to be translated by the top team he puts together."

Two key Jewish names being mentioned for cabinet-level posts are Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis who has been Bush's domestic policy guru, and Paul Wolfowitz, an undersecretary of defense during the administration of Bush's father.

During the campaign, Bush voiced strong support for Israel and a role for the United States as a mediator in regional peace negotiations. But by and large, the Texas governor is untested in foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular.

Some Jewish leaders will be watching to determine whether he would act to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he promised to do during the campaign.

Congress has legislated such a move but the Clinton administration put it off, saying it would jeopardize the peace process.

Action on the embassy will be a key opening-round test of a Bush presidency, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In general, he added, "I think we will look at the kind of outreach that goes on to our community."

Most analysts predict Bush will not devote the same level of time and energy to the Middle East conflict that Clinton did.

To the extent a Bush administration focuses on the region, the job is likely to fall to the State Department.

Bush's chief foreign policy advisers during the campaign were Wolfowitz; Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford University professor who served on the National Security Council when Bush's father was in the White House.

Powell, believed to be the leading contender for secretary of state, held the chairman post during the Gulf War, and apparently developed good relations with Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Israel's top military man at the time.

Powell, however, has not had much experience in diplomacy.

Rice, who visited Israel this summer, is Bush's likely national security adviser.

In interviews during the campaign, she reiterated Bush's belief in U.S. solidarity with Israel but said the White House must allow the parties themselves to set the pace of peace talks.

"You want this period to unfold in a way that secures Israel, and you have to trust Israel to make decisions about its own security," Rice said in an interview in September.

Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said he is concerned that neither Powell nor Rice has a strong diplomatic track record.

However, Bush has an opportunity to delve into Middle East issues with a clean slate, Neumann said.

"This is an opportunity to come in and start afresh," he added. Bush "does not have a stake" in whether the Oslo process, which began under the Clinton administration and has seemingly collapsed, works.

Meanwhile, some Jewish observers will be watching to see what role, if any, is given to James Baker, the former secretary of state who emerged as a key member of the Bush team during the Florida legal wrangling over vote counts.

Baker, seen by many Jews as hostile to Israel, incurred the wrath of the established Jewish community during a nasty fight over loan guarantees to Israel in the early 1991.

Jewish observers will also be watching for gestures made to the Arab-American community, which gave Bush strong support on Election Day.

Jewish activists say Bush will have to straddle a working relationship between the Jewish community and Arab-Americans.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he expects a change in the role the United States will play on issues related to the Middle East.

Bush "realizes Israel has to make its own decisions on the pace of the peace process," Brooks added. "We're not going to force Israel to conform to our timetable."

He said recent actions by Palestinian leaders call into question their true commitment to peace, adding that the United States may have moved too fast under Clinton.

On the domestic front, a Bush White House will be forced to face a sometimes bitterly divided Congress. The task is likely to be even more daunting given the contentious outcome of the election.

Analysts say Bush's campaign theme of serving as a "uniter, not a divider" will be put to the test.

"The healing in Congress and bipartisanship has been very important to him," said Aviv. "He ought to pick up on issues with consensus."

Analysts believe that compromise will be necessary to quell some hot-button issues in the 107th Congress, including gun control, Social Security and Medicare.

"You're not going to see massive changes in the legislative process because the margins are too narrow," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Also potentially explosive could be nominations to the Supreme Court and other federal benches. The Democrats have enough votes in the Senate to block some conservative nominations.

"Given the close division in the Senate, the president is going to be forced to the middle with a nomination," said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department.

On the abortion issue, Bush is pro-life, but a few moderate Republicans in the Senate are pro-choice.

The White House may be forced to nominate a candidate who will not overturn Roe v. Wade, but is in favor of legislative restrictions on abortion, Stern said.

But nominations to the court are unpredictable. A Democratic majority in the Senate in 1991 approved Clarence Thomas, considered one of the most conservative members of the current court.

Although nominees could be seen as moderate because of their views on abortion, Stern said, any Bush nominees will likely take Republican positions on such issues as charitable choice and school vouchers.

Bush received only 19 percent of Jewish support in the election.

But according to Cliff Sobel, who co-chaired the Jewish community outreach program for Bush's presidential campaign, that will have no effect on the importance of the Jewish constituency.

"I know that Governor Bush does not look at polls in making decisions," said Sobel. "Whether we voted less or more for the Republican ticket would not make a difference on important issues."

Forman said it is natural for politicians to steer away from groups that don't provide a great deal of electoral support, but he said he still thinks the Jewish representation in a Bush White House will be greater than the Jewish proportion of the country.

"The Jewish community will survive a Republican White House," Forman said. "We will have issues that we won't be happy about, but we will survive quite well."