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Candidates Keep Their Distance From Bush, aka 'Mr. Palestine'
If George W. Bush were running for president today on his current Mideast policy, he probably would lose the votes of many who have praised him as Israel's best friend ever in the Oval Office.
In 2000, right-of-center pro-Israel voters were attracted by his vow to quickly move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and his determination not to following the footsteps of his father and Bill Clinton into the Mideast peace process swamp. They were delighted when he snubbed Yasser Arafat.
He's come a long way since then, and so have those admirers. The trouble is, they've gone in different directions.
Bush is making his first presidential trip to Israel in a few weeks to follow up on his efforts begun last month at Annapolis to revive peace negotiations intended to establish a Palestinian state before he leaves office in 13 months.
The Christian Zionists who are a significant part of his political base on the Christian right, on the other hand, are more determined than ever to block Palestinian statehood. Along with Orthodox Jewish groups, these evangelicals are better organized and more assertive than they were eight years ago, and even more vehemently opposed to the administration policies that led the recent edition of The Economist to profile Bush as "Mr. Palestine."
They counter Bush's cautious optimism about peace with hysterical warnings about the betrayal of Israel. They don't even trust the secular Palestinians who Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are calling sincere and willing peace partners.
So where can they turn? Not to the Democrats, who are trying to support Bush's new approach without talking about it very much. The Democrats worry that Annapolis was just another photo op; they want Bush to take the peace process seriously and give it the presidential attention it needs.
Democrats don't want to get too close to Bush any more than the Republican presidential hopefuls do lest his unpopularity and reputation for incompetence rub off on them.
Democrats are also fearful that if they start talking about peace, the hawks and hard-liners will begin smearing them as anti-Israel. The Republican Jewish Coalition has spent millions in recent years on its campaign to destroy the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus and turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue, tying all Democrats to Jimmy Carter and other critics of Israel.
And, of course, the Democrats will retaliate by trying to paint Republicans as a bunch of bigoted know-nothings, and tie them to Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan and their ilk.
Among Republican presidential hopefuls, there is considerable disdain for the centerpiece of the Bush administration's Mideast policy -- the road map for peace. And that's understandable in light of their avid courtship of the party's powerful social and religious conservative bloc, as well as contributions from pro-Israel hard-liners.
Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, said that "too much emphasis has been placed" on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which would "assist the creation of another state that will support terrorism."
That's much the same charge that candidate Bush leveled against the Clinton administration eight years ago.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson were all critical of Bush convening the Annapolis conference, suggesting that the Palestinians aren't ready for peace.
So all you're likely to hear about the Middle East -- unless something dramatic happens -- is a plethora of pap and pandering from both sides of the divide.
Candidates in both parties will talk about how much they love Israel, hate terrorists, despise Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and don't think much of Jimmy Carter. But don't expect much illumination about what these aspiring leaders of the free world would do about Middle East foreign policy.
The only exceptions come from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Republican Ron Paul on the right and Democrat Dennis Kucinich on the left, neither of whom would be counted among Israel's top 425 friends in the House of Representatives.
Republican candidates seem to be avoiding any embrace of Bush's Middle Eastern policies for fear of running afoul of their party's hard-liners. And for their part, Democrats aren't anxious to say much of anything nice right now about Bush and his administration.
But all should be praying he succeeds because, as the Economist profile said, "only by exercising uncharacteristically bold leadership can Bush fulfill his ambition of being the father of Palestinian statehood and set the two foes firmly on the road to peace."
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.