Its me-too politics on Israel &mdash until Nov. 3

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) recently sent Jewish leaders his new position paper on the Middle East, and it sure is a relief to know the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee thinks Israel is cool and Yasser Arafat is a worthless shlemiel.

On the other side of the partisan chasm, President Bush thinks Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a soul brother and his Gaza disengagement plan is aces. So what’s a little separation fence between friends, anyway?

Campaign 2004 features pitched battles over dozens of issues, from budget policy to the war on terrorism, but there’s almost no daylight between the candidates on Israel.

But while both appear to be strong supporters of the Jewish state, it’s not the love of Zion that’s driving the election-year love fest, but politics.

It’s important to note that last week’s critique by perennial spoiler Ralph Nader, who said Congress and the administration are “puppets” of the Jerusalem government, is off the mark. In the long term, Democratic and Republican administrations have been equally willing to put the squeeze on Jerusalem when needed — especially when they see a viable Palestinian partner for peace efforts.

But you won’t catch pols talking about it during election years.

In fact, the gap between election-year politics and policy is why Israel could be in for a jolt after Nov. 2, when U.S. policy is likely to change significantly no matter who is elected.

For both candidates, the stakes in not ruffling pro-Israel feathers are obvious.

Kerry needs a big turnout from the Democratic base, especially in key battleground states; Jewish voters are a significant and exceptionally vocal part of that base, an even bigger part of the Democratic fund-raising machine.

Bush, expected to get no more than 30 percent of the Jewish vote, still doesn’t want to anger hawkish pro-Israel Jews in these states, or the Christian-right leaders who have become best friends with Israeli ultranationalists.

Short-term politics suggest the same strategy for both sides: Stick to broad pro-Israel generalities and avoid politically toxic issues like Jewish settlements, Palestinian statehood and new U.S. initiatives. Suggest nothing and you can’t be blamed for anything.

Serious Mideast talk is all the more risky because of the deep polarization of the Jewish community on the best route to peace and security for Israel.

Who can blame politicians for keeping quiet about their real Mideast views when almost any substantive comment is bound to enrage a segment of the politically hyperactive Jewish community?

The political equation here is not balanced; it’s the most conservative voices in American Jewry, not the doves, who define what it means to be pro-Israel in the political realm.

To these hawks, it’s not sufficient to bash Arafat and support the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance. Increasingly, the standard suggests that any criticism of Israeli policy, any hint of a new plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reflects hostility to the Jewish state.

John Kerry wasn’t being anti-Israel last year when he criticized Israel’s security fence — his views at the time were about the same as those of the Bush administration — but in the polarized atmosphere of the times, some pro-Israel Jews immediately tagged him as hostile, and he’s been fighting the charge ever since.

Who can blame the guy for issuing a position paper dripping in pro-Israel generalities? Who can blame the Republicans for insisting the Sharon love-fest will continue after November, when everybody knows it won’t even if the president is re-elected?

The problem with this me-too contest is that we haven’t a clue what the two candidates will do if they take the reins of U.S. Mideast policy next January.

Kerry’s history suggests a more active, more multilateral approach to foreign policy in general, but he’ll go to great pains to hide his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until after Nov. 2.

President Bush is still committed to his vision for quick Palestinian statehood and has compelling new reasons to move on it quickly, starting with the need to ease rifts with European and Mideast allies whose help he desperately needs in Iraq.

But he doesn’t need political guru Karl Rove to give him this advice: Wait until Nov. 3 to start changing policy.

The taboo against serious Mideast debate means that Jews who care about Israel are voting on spin and slogans and on the partisan recriminations that pass for debate these days, not on substance.

It means that once again, many Jewish voters will be outraged when the candidates they voted for, now responsible for serious policy and not just sloganeering, do the things they refused to talk about on the campaign trail, and don’t do the things they promised.

Do the words “Jerusalem embassy” ring any bells?

A strong U.S.-Israel alliance is a given these days; it shouldn’t be beyond the pale to debate the best way to strengthen that connection while serving other vital U.S. interests.

Maybe such a debate will actually lead to better policies. That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.

James David Besser is a Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers across the country.