As the cycle of suicide bombings and military incursions inexorably pulled George W. Bush into the Middle East morass, his first instinct was to stand tall behind Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Particularly in the aftermath of September 11, the President empathized with Israel's daily struggle against terrorism. That position also had a side benefit: It appealed to Christian conservatives and historically Democratic Jewish Americans, two important voting blocs.
But as the death toll mounts, Bush is under increasing pressure to recalibrate his policy to be more sympathetic to the stateless Palestinians. And therein lies the conundrum. As Bush readies a blueprint for eventual Palestinian statehood, he faces a potential political backlash.
For the Religious Right, a key component of the GOP base, the survival of Israel is a top issue. Christian conservatives see Israel as a democratic bastion of Judeo-Christian values in a virulently anti-American region.
At the same time, Bush's Mideast policies "are making inroads into the Jewish community," says Neil Goldstein of the American Jewish Congress. While Bush got just 19% of the Jewish vote in 2000, a small increase in that total could prove pivotal in key swing states with sizable Jewish populations, including Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Early indications are that Bush has already won over many Jewish voters. His approval rating among New York Jews was 53% in April, up from 35% last June, according to the Quinnipiac University Poll.
The odd-couple alliance between Christian conservatives and pro-Israel Jews has solidified as Mideast violence has escalated--altering the political balance inside the Beltway. Despite their fundamental disagreements on social issues and church-state separation, leaders of the two movements have jointly lobbied lawmakers in support of Israel. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a staunch Sharon ally and critic of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat, pushed an uncompromising, pro-Israel resolution through the House with the assistance of liberal Representative and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). Backing Israel is not just good foreign policy, says Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, "it's also good politics with Christians and American Jews who may be reevaluating traditional party loyalties."
But there's a catch: What might reap electoral benefits at home could imperil Bush's goals abroad. To realize one of his top priorities--ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein--the President needs at least tacit support from moderate Arab states. Says Michael E. O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow: "We will need to show sensitivity to Palestinian concerns, particularly if we want to secure [military] base access." Tilting too far toward Israel could also undermine the war on terrorism. Many European allies, whose cooperation is crucial, are skeptical of Bush's pro-Sharon stance.
If there is no reduction in Mideast violence, any short-term domestic payoff could prove ephemeral for Bush. "Scoring points with the Christian Right and obtaining a better fund-raising position with American Jews now will do nothing for him if there is Armageddon in the Middle East in the early months of 2004," says Princeton University political scientist Fred I. Greenstein. That's why Bush is desperately seeking a middle ground. But it will be a neat trick to score points abroad without burning newly built bridges to Jewish voters at home. Turn on the TV news, and there's Joe Lieberman: probing corporate misconduct, pushing for a strong Homeland Security Dept., and challenging President Bush's environmental record. After months in the shadows, Senator Lieberman (D-Conn.) has finally found his voice and a compelling set of issues--and Democrats may have found a far more effective spokesman than the aggressively partisan Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
But just as Lieberman mounts his national soapbox, it may be rudely kicked over. On June 28, former running mate Al Gore is set to convene a loya jirga in Memphis, a grand gathering of political and financial supporters meant to signal Gore's desire for a 2004 rematch with George W. Bush. Lieberman has said he won't seek the nomination if Gore goes for the gold.
So where does that leave Lieberman? Not totally out in the cold. The loyal second banana still tops the list of Gore running mates for '04.
Another scenario has Lieberman continuing with his high-profile legislative activities--and his heavy schedule of stumping for fellow Dems--in the guise of a noncandidate. If a Gore comeback fizzles, Lieberman would be ready to pick up the pieces.
Meantime, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee chairman has no intention of leaving the national spotlight. In coming weeks, he'll call FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, CIA Director George J. Tenet, and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to testify before his panel. That will make headlines Al Gore could never grab.