WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) didn't wait to see if his presidential ambitions were realized before sending an emissary of sorts — his brother — to Israel. Fealty to Israel's security is so deeply embedded in both parties that symbolic touches may be the most that sets them apart.
In Kerry, Middle East analysts see a candidate who has indicated a willingness to return to the deep activism of the Bill Clinton (search) years in trying to win an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In President Bush, they see a steadfast friend of the Israelis who has only fitfully put the weight of his presidency on ending the conflict.
In practice, any shift in policy is more likely to be driven by what happens in the region than who wins the U.S. election, they say. And with both Bush and Kerry pledging a single-minded focus on global terrorism, Clinton's zeal as a would-be peacemaker seems firmly of another time.
"The differences among Democrats and Republicans are not about the size of the commitment to Israel," said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland. "It is more about what the commitment means, and what policies to pursue to help Israeli and American interests."
That small country has a huge American audience: not only Jews and Arab-Americans, but Christian conservatives who take a pro-Israel line. Candidates mess at their peril with the precarious balance of supporting Israel while reaching out to Palestinians.
"The support and commitment for Israel run deep in the blood of the body politic of Americans," said Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is the one issue in foreign policy that has a genuine domestic constituency."
Kerry's rhetorical shifts have brought him closer in line with Bush, even as he accuses the president of abandoning the honest-broker traditions of his predecessor.
Many point to Bush's strong embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a hard-liner with a history of supporting Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, as an example of the difference in emphasis between the two candidates. But Kerry, just like Bush, now calls Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "irrelevant," only months after declining to count Arafat out in negotiations, and after having once called him a "statesman."
When it comes to Israel, the broad strokes of U.S. foreign policy give way to paint-by-numbers particularity. America takes positions on narrow slices of land, concerns itself with the fine print of tortured agreements between foes, and probably gives more thought to the West Bank security barrier than it gives to some countries.
The Middle East planks of the Democratic platform are threaded with language that means little to the average American voter but is keenly understood by Israelis, Arabs and the U.S. groups that support them.
"It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice line of 1949," the platform says, for example. To those who are alert to the nuances, that means the party supports some Israeli claims to the West Bank.
The platform avoids the debate over the 425-mile-long security barrier Israel is building on the West Bank — a topic so sensitive that much is read into whether someone calls it a fence, as Israel does, or a wall, as Palestinians do. In reality it is a combination of high concrete walls, razor-wire fences and trenches.
Both Kerry and the Bush administration have supported its construction as a necessary component of Israel's security and struggle against suicide bombers while urging that it be routed in the least repressive way for Palestinians living there.
Those complexities aside, Kerry's brother Cameron met top Israeli leaders this week on what was described as a goodwill visit organized by a pro-Israel group in the United States. Cameron Kerry, a political adviser to his brother and a Boston attorney who converted to Judaism in 1983, was said to be representing the Democratic candidate on the trip, and stressed his brother's "deep personal connection to Israel."
Jews strongly vote Democratic, but the party also has liberal activists sympathetic to Palestinian grievances. However, it has no wish to alienate far larger groups of voters with tectonic shifts in Middle East policy.
"The only question for Mr. Kerry has been the size of the Jewish minority that would vote for Bush," Telhami said. "I think he has worked hard to make sure that it would remain small.
"At the same time, Arab and Muslim voters — many of whom voted for Bush last time — are now much more inclined to vote against Bush" because of what they perceive as heavy-handed unilateralism in the region, Telhami said.
He said Kerry's challenge is to dissuade them from sitting out the election in close states such as Michigan or, worse for him, voting for independent Ralph Nader, who is Lebanese-American.