- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has been forced to do damage control this week after recently saying America should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Dean, a former Vermont governor, told a group last week in Santa Fe, N.M., that it is “not our place to take sides,” in the Middle East conflict, and that there are an “enormous number” of Israeli settlements that must go, the Associated Press reported.

This week, after facing strong criticism about the remarks from fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman and others, Mr. Dean said America clearly has a “special” relationship with Israel and that he simply holds the view of former President Bill Clinton that achieving peace means America must be “trusted by both sides.” He also told CNN that perhaps advocating an “evenhanded” policy in the Middle East was not the best choice of words.

“I’ve since learned that is a sensitive word … in some communities,” he said Wednesday on CNN’s “Wolf Blitzer Reports.”

“It would appear to some that he backed down,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic presidential-campaign consultant. “Or maybe he got the political message that in some of the states he has to compete in, this issue could be a deciding issue.”

“This is a huge issue for the Jewish community. You can’t be ambiguous; you have to be pro-Israel all the time,” said Matt Klink, vice president at Cerrell Associates, a Democratic consulting firm in Los Angeles. “That’s why Howard Dean is responding to this so forcefully.”

Mr. Lieberman lashed out during a debate Tuesday, saying Mr. Dean would “break a 50-year record” of bipartisan support for Israel.

Mr. Dean countered that he shares the same view as Mr. Clinton and he told CNN that his position is the same position the United States has taken for more than 50 years. “The American policy is and will continue to be based on Israel’s right to exist,” he said.

He said, like Mr. Clinton, he believes “we do have a special relationship with Israel,” but that, “we do have to have the trust of both sides or we will never succeed.”

Mr. Sheinkopf said Mr. Dean’s initial comments put him “outside of the mainstream,” and he is now trying to clarify or change them, while evoking the image of Mr. Clinton — a fix that he said does not work.

“It makes him appear inconsistent … on the issue that matters to people, which is national defense and security,” he said.

Mr. Klink said Mr. Dean was vague at first and had to go back this week and “fill in” his position, making it clear he is pro-Israel. The former governor’s initial comments spurred a letter from more than 30 House Democrats, criticizing the candidate for his words.

“This is not a time to be sending mixed messages,” read the letter, which was circulated by Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat. “On the contrary, in these difficult times, we must reaffirm our unyielding commitment to Israel’s survival.”

Mr. Berman, who did not see Mr. Dean’s CNN appearance, said it is clear Mr. Dean “didn’t fully understand the nature of the U.S. role” in the Middle East when he made his initial statements and that “Bill Clinton would never, ever have uttered” them. He hopes Mr. Dean now understands that part of being an “honest broker” in the Middle East is always being clear that the United States supports Israel.

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