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Lieberman Moves to Reassure Jewish Leaders

By Dan Balz and Alan Cooperman, Washington Post, Thursday 16 January 2003; Page A10

Democratic presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman sought to reassure American Jewish leaders yesterday that comments he made during a recent Middle East visit did not represent any slackening in his support for a strong pro-Israel policy by the United States.

Lieberman told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that he had refused to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat because of continuing Palestinian involvement in terrorism and had pressed Saudi officials to stand up and speak clearly against Islamic fanaticism.

During his December trip to the Middle East, according to news reports, the Connecticut senator expressed strong support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people to an independent state, encouraged a Saudi role in peacemaking and criticized the Bush administration for not staying engaged in promoting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The trip stirred criticism from some Orthodox Jews who strongly support President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. They interpreted Lieberman's comments as a bid for support from liberal Democratic activists in presidential primaries. Others saw the trip as an effort by Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to demonstrate his independence from the Israeli government and to reassure voters that he would not be captive to Israeli interests.

A Lieberman adviser, speaking on background, said yesterday's meeting in New York gave the senator a chance to clear up some misimpressions of his views based on news reports of his 10-day visit to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, said in an interview: The overall concern was, is he compromising some of the positions he held before in order to accommodate his presidential campaign? I think the answer is no. . . . Joe doesn't have to play to the Arab states in order to allay any fears that he's in anyone's pocket.

Hoenlein said Lieberman gave reassuring answers to hard-hitting questions, but some other Jewish leaders were not satisfied.

I would have liked a stronger, unequivocal statement from Senator Lieberman condemning the ongoing promotion, paying-for and glorifying of murder in the Palestinian Authority, said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Lieberman's comments in the Middle East did not substantially depart from the policies of the Bush administration, which has supported creation of a Palestinian state and been receptive to Saudi Arabia's offering of a peace plan for the region. Nonetheless, they sparked a reaction in the United States.

In the Orthodox community, the concept of a Palestinian state is not really an accepted goal, said Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, an Orthodox group. Even though Sharon talks about it, most people don't think he really believes it. . . . So for a person we look upon as extremely pro-Israel to come out in favor of it, especially at a time of heightened terrrorism, was unexpected.

Lieberman told the Jewish leaders yesterday he supports a Palestinian state, but only after the Palestinians renounce terror. He also said he finds the details of the Saudi peace plan unacceptable, but believes it is significant that a major Arab nation had talked about recognizing the state of Israel.

Lieberman, whose frequent talk about his religious faith as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 drew criticism from some Jewish leaders, was also asked yesterday about his views on the separation of church and state and about questions of whether a Jewish president would tilt too much toward Israel. When he announced his candidacy on Monday, Lieberman told reporters, Obviously, I'm running as an American who happens to be Jewish and not the other way around.

Abraham Foxman, longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, said that in speaking to Jewish groups around the country, he has found a lot of worry about Lieberman's candidacy -- but not because of the senator's positions on the Middle East.

On the whole, I believe America is politically mature today and ready to have a Jew, possibly, as a president, Foxman said. I am finding that the American Jewish community may not be there yet. There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of nervousness, a lot of people saying, 'Do we really need it? Do we need the high profile? If we have a Jewish president, will the Jews get blamed for all kinds of things?'

David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said he believes that most non-Jews feel more comfortable with Lieberman's expressions of personal faith than most Jews do.

I'm generalizing, but the basic point is that many American Jews are uncomfortable with the entry of religion into politics, and will only become more anxious if it's a Jewish candidate who puts religion center stage, Harris said. On the other hand, many non-Jews appear entirely comfortable with faith being an element in national leadership.