In outreach to Jewish community, Kerry stresses his ties with Israel

washington | A Kerry administration would avoid the pressure other presidents have used to nudge Israel in peace negotiations, and would consult closely with the Jewish state before launching any new Middle East peace initiative.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, outlined his approach to Middle East peacemaking in an interview with JTA on Monday, the same day he launched his campaign to win Jewish votes with a major policy speech to the Anti-Defamation League.

Kerry has been working hard to mitigate the effect in the Jewish community of President Bush’s extraordinary concessions to Israel last month, when the president recognized some Israeli claims to the West Bank and rejected any right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

The Jewish vote could play a crucial role in 10 swing states in what is likely to be a close election this fall, and Kerry is on a fund-raising drive that needs a strong turnout among the Democrats’ broad base of Jewish donors. His ADL speech sounded a range of notes aimed at pleasing Jewish ears — on civil rights, anti-Semitism and Israel.

“For the entire 20 years that I have been in the United States Senate, I’m proud that my commitment to a secure Jewish state has been unwavering; not even by one vote or one letter or one resolution has it wavered,” Kerry said to the applause of the ADL audience. “As president, I can guarantee you that that support and that effort for our ally, a vibrant democracy, will continue.”

That’s a guarantee that Bush — or for that matter, almost any of his predecessors — easily could make. In his subsequent interview with JTA, Kerry sought to elaborate on what would distinguish his presidency vis-a-vis Israel.

“I’m very sensitive to the push-back that came from overly aggressive presidents who tried to just advance the title” of a peace process, “without the substance,” Kerry told JTA. “There’s always been a feeling of concessions driven without a return on it. I will never voice a concession that somehow puts Israel’s judgment of its security at risk.”

The only president Kerry cited specifically was President Clinton. He praised Clinton for his efforts as an “honest broker” between Israelis and Palestinians, but acknowledged, “Some people, obviously there are a few people, who felt he pushed too hard.”

Clinton pressed Israel into offering unexpectedly broad concessions at the Camp David summit in 2000.

Kerry also said his belief in a multilateral approach to foreign affairs did not apply to Israel.

“The multilateral community has always been very difficult with respect to Israel, and we have always stood up against their efforts to isolate Israel,” he said.

Kerry said his criticism of what he calls the Bush administration’s unilateralism has to do with the administration of Iraq, environmental issues and containment of North Korea.

Kerry’s speech to the ADL came ahead of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting, which will feature a top Bush administration official, but not Kerry. AIPAC never invites an opposition presidential candidate to speak when an incumbent is running for re-election.

In his speech to the ADL, Kerry sought to extend a prominent campaign theme — that Bush’s conservative agenda has divided the country — into one that resonated with an organization championing dialogue and conciliation.

He celebrated the “notion that we don’t try to have a politics that goes down to the lowest common denominator, but rather lifts people up to the highest common denominator; that doesn’t try to drive wedges between people in order to govern and conquer, but recognizes the words of Abraham Lincoln — that a house divided against itself cannot stand,” Kerry said in his speech.

“And we should ask ourselves in this country why it is that we are so divided today,” Kerry said.