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Analysis: President Kerry on Israel

By GADI DECHTER, United Press International   |   July 9, 2004 at 7:51 PM
WASHINGTON, July 9 (UPI) -- A leaked draft of the Democratic Party platform and recent statements by John Kerry suggest that a Democratic White House would continue the Bush administration's enthusiastic support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

However, the decidedly circumspect wording of these documents do hint at subtle, but potentially significant, differences in a Kerry administration's likely policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last month, Kerry released a position paper titled, "John Kerry: Strengthening Israel's Security and Bolstering the U.S.-Israel Special Relationship." The paper was designed to assuage concerns of pro-Israel voters still rankled by Kerry's comments during the primaries, in which he harshly criticized the Israeli construction of the barrier in the West Bank.

"I know how disheartened Palestinians are by the Israeli government's decision to build a barrier off the 'Green Line,' cutting deeply into Palestinian areas," Kerry told members of the Arab-American Institute in October 2003, a month after he had announced his candidacy. "We do not need another barrier to peace." He went on to say that the barrier was a "provocative and counterproductive measure" that was not in Israel's interest.

Assured of the nomination, Kerry appears to have reversed his position on the West Bank barrier, which was ruled illegal Friday by the International Court of Justice. "John Kerry supports the construction of Israel's security fence to stop terrorists from entering Israel," the June statement reads. "The security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense erected in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israeli citizens. He believes the security fence is not a matter for the International Court of Justice."

In a statement released Friday evening after the court's ruling, Kerry reiterated his support for the barrier, and said he was "deeply disappointed by today's International Court of Justice ruling."

Pro-Israel groups have been quick to seize on Kerry's apparent capitulation on the barrier as a victory for Israel. The Web site of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful lobby group, described Kerry as expressing "support for the security fence that Israel is erecting along the West Bank."

Well, not exactly. The security barrier is being constructed inside -- at some points, deep inside -- the West Bank, not "along" it, and in his statement Kerry is careful to legitimize the barrier only as a preventive measure that will stop terrorists from "entering Israel," not as de facto political border designed to annex territory, as many critics of Israel suspect. A future President Kerry could very well demand that Israel re-route the barrier closer to the 1967 borders without contradicting himself.

The AIPAC Web site goes on to report that Kerry, in his June statement, "describes Yasser Arafat as 'a failed leader and unfit partner for peace,'" and calls for "his total isolation."

This is also an inaccurate paraphrasing of the senator's position. In the June statement, Kerry merely points out -- using the ambiguous present perfect tense -- that he "has supported (Arafat's) total isolation," but does not explicitly call for a continuation of the Palestinian Authority chairman's restriction to his Ramallah compound by Israel.

Ironically, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz also misquoted Kerry's statement, reporting that Kerry "promises not to negotiate with Yasser Arafat." Kerry has made no such promise. He has merely called for a "new, responsible Palestinian leadership," a statement which hardly precludes Arafat from remaining at the helm, especially given his remarkable talent for political reincarnation.

A working draft of the Democratic national platform obtained by United Press International, which will be debated and finalized in Miami next week, offers more insight into how a Kerry administration might depart from Bush foreign policy toward Israel.

Far from disavowing future negotiation with Arafat, the platform promises to "demonstrate the kind of resolve to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that President Clinton showed." Clinton, of course, was the only American president to honor the former guerilla leader with a state visit and to welcome him to the White House.

The platform draft does includes a demand for Palestinian reform -- "We will work to transform the Palestinian Authority to promote new and responsible leadership" -- though the wording is so vague as to invite any number of interpretations. The Palestinian Authority could certainly say that it has always promoted new and responsible leadership -- particularly in the Knesset.

It's certainly possible that the party platform will undergo radical revision before the Boston convention later this month, but as it stands there is no mention of the barrier, the Gaza disengagement plan or the status of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. (In his June statement, Kerry does acknowledge, without endorsing, "that in light of demographic realities, a number of settlement blocks will likely become a part of Israel.")

Contrast this relatively tepid language with the bluntly partisan rhetoric of candidate Bush in 2000 -- "America's special relationship with Israel precedes the peace process. And Israel's adversaries should know that in my administration, the special relationship will continue, even if they cannot bring themselves to make true peace with the Jewish state" -- and it's easy to understand the 23 standing ovations the president received at last May's AIPAC policy convention in Washington.

Still, despite differences of nuance and omission, Bush and Kerry do appear to be in accord on the most bitterly contended Israeli-Palestinian disagreements: the Palestinian call for Arab refugees and their descendents be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel, and the Palestinian demand that Israel retreat to its 1967 borders. Both candidates are on the record as rejecting the "right of return," and both say that some Jewish settlement blocks in the territories will almost certainly be annexed to Israel as part of a peace deal.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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