Congress voted overwhelmingly last week to affirm the Bush revolution in Middle East policy. On Wednesday, by a 407-9 vote, the House "strongly endorsed" two promises made by the President to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a letter of April 14: 1) The U.S. agrees that it is "unrealistic" for Israel to pull back to the pre-1967 lines and dismantle its major West Bank settlements, and 2) the U.S. does not expect Israel to resettle Palestinian refugees.
The next day, the Senate passed a similar nonbinding resolution. The vote was 95 to 3.
The Bush doctrine, now ratified by both houses of Congress, radically alters more than 30 years of American Middle Eastern diplomacy. It puts the U.S., for the first time, flatly on the Israeli side of the post-Six-Day War dispute. Not surprisingly, Sharon hailed this as "a great day in the history of Israel."
Only three senators voted against the pro-Israel resolution: ex-Klansman Robert Byrd of West Virginia, John Sununu of New Hampshire and independent James Jeffords of Vermont. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, skipped the ballot. So did only one other senator: John Kerry. He was in California.
Why did Kerry absent himself? He had some commitments on the West Coast - meeting with retired auto exec Lee Iacocca, taking a bow at a Hollywood fund-raising concert nothing he couldn't have skipped to cast a vote on America's new Israel policy.
No, Kerry ducked out because he didn't want to be there. His no-show conveyed a tacit but unmistakable message of dissent.
President Bush's tilt toward Israel is very unpopular in Old Europe, among American foreign policy establishmentarians and in the Naderite wing of the Democratic Party. All three constituencies matter very much to Kerry. His Senate no-show signals to them that a Kerry administration wouldn't be bound by his predecessor's promises or policies.
This may seem politically courageous. In fact, it is not.
True, support for Israel is widespread in the U.S. last week's margins in the House and Senate make that plain. But those for whom it is the key issue will undoubtedly vote for Bush. No American President (heck, no Israeli president) has ever been such an ardent Zionist.
For run-of-the-mill pro-Israel Americans, Kerry is supportive enough. Democratic Jews (the party's main Israel constituency) aren't really all that concerned about details. They can live with a return to the "evenhandedness" of the Clinton-Gore years. After all, even Jimmy Carter, who was downright unfriendly to Israel, got around 60% of the Jewish vote in 1980. Kerry can expect considerably more than that.
That's why the accusation that Bush's pro-Israel policies are politically inspired a charge made most recently by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) are absurd. Sure, Sharon's blessing may do the Republicans some good in Miami or Borough Park, Brooklyn. But there simply aren't enough "Israel first" votes to change the outcome of an election.
George Bush knows this. So does John Kerry. That's why the senator could afford to punt on Thursday. It won't hurt him politically, and it broadens his options if he's elected.
President Kerry will be able to shift back to a more "evenhanded" approach to the Middle East conflict without being accused of flip-flopping. After all, on the day the Senate voted to ratify Bush's promises to Israel, Kerry just happened to be 3,000 miles away.