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Is there any difference between Republicans and Democrats on Israel? That's a point over which the two parties have contended mightily in recent years. But when more than 700 people gathered in downtown Philadelphia for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee "Salute to Congress" gala, differences were swept under the carpet.
The affair was yet another demonstration of the wall-to-wall support for the pro-Israel agenda of AIPAC among both officeholders and activists. And to emphasize just how broad the coalition for support is, the group was able to call in as speakers Howard Dean and Ken Mehlman, the chairmen of the Democratic and the Republican national committees, respectively.
Neither disappointed, as each pointed to the longstanding support of the major parties for Israel and for strengthening the US-Israel alliance. Each lambasted Palestinian terrorists, and stressed that Israel's security would not be compromised in the search for peace.
But for all of the scrupulous bipartisanship fostered by AIPAC, there were still some critical differences between the messages put forward by Dean and Mehlman. And in these speeches can be discerned the different approaches of the two parties toward the task of winning Jewish votes.
Speaking at length about the history of Democratic support for Israel, Dean surprised no one when he spoke of the party's "unshakable support," as well as voicing criticism of the Palestinians and the Saudis for inciting hatred against Jews and Israel, and pledging that Democrats "won't permit" Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. It was interesting that of the two, it was Dean who was at pains to demonstrate his personal commitment to Jewish causes.
Dean, whose equivocal statements about Israel in the past were used by both Dem ocratic and Republican foes during his 2004 presidential bid, felt the need to establish his bona fides by speaking movingly of his close associations with Jews and Israel, including the fact that his children are Jewish, and that he holds great respect for Judaism and his Jewish in-laws, and has visited Israel. Indeed, his pledge of allegiance to all things Jewish and Zionist seemed to lack only a promise to convert.
Of course, Mehlman, who is not the media star that Dean has become in recent years, is already Jewish. He was left to explain how a "nice Jewish boy" from Baltimore would find himself backing "a Texas Republican." In calling himself a "Sharansky Republican" - it was president Ronald Reagan's opposition to communism and support for refuseniks that inspired him to join the GOP - Mehlman harkened back to Cold War divisions that propelled many in the pro-Israel camp over to the Republicans.
But after the obligatory applause lines about Israel were spoken, both men went on to make points that, while lacking a directly partisan punchline, clearly laid out each party's line of attack for Jewish votes in the future.
For Mehlman, that meant identifying the war in Iraq and its justification with the pro-Israel movement's own concerns about Islamo-fascist terrorism.
But Dean, who is well-known as an all-out critic of the Iraq war, said not a word about it. Rather, he focused the second half of his speech taking aim at what he correctly sees as the Democrats ace in the hole: Jewish fear of socially conservative Christians.
Speaking of what he said was the difference between his party and the Republicans, Dean asserted Democrats "believe that Jews should feel comfortable in being American Jews" without being constrained from practicing their faith o r be compelled to convert to another religion.
The obvious implication was that even though, as Dean acknowledged, Republicans back Israel, their views on domestic issues and their identification with evangelical Christianity ought to make them nonkosher in Jewish eyes.
As assertive as he was about threats to Israel, Dean was just as passionate about the perception that conservative Christians actually wish to constrain Jews from practicing their religion in the United States - or at least make them fee l less comfortable about it.
Ignoring Dean's attacks, Mehlman concentrated his fire on another fear: what would happen to both the United States and Israel if Iraq was lost to al-Qaida.
Mehlman spoke of Bush's record of support for Israel and his refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat. But the Republican's main focus was to justify the war on Iraq and link it with the pro-Israel community's concerns.
For Mehlman, the points Democrats make about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are ir relevant, and that "waiting for Saddam to deploy them" was not a reasonable option. Saying that Bush's dilemma resembled that of Israel, which launched its own preemptive strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, he declared that "we cou ld not and we cannot wait."
"Leaving Iraq at the mercy of the murderers" would grant a victory to al-Qaida, stated Mehlman. The implication here was that if, as many Democrats now wish, America pulls its troops out and concedes failure in Iraq, the common war against terror in which Israel is also locked would suffer.
Republicans were able to gain a crucial few percentage points of Jewish votes in 2004 based on the perception of strong Republican support for Israel. Also key to that gain was the notion that an administration fighting aggressively against Islamist terror would make the world a safer place for Jews. As long as Jews fear al-Qaida and its Palestinian allies more than the conservative Christians, the Republicans have a fighting chance to win a larger share of Jewish votes.
But if the bulk of these voters still fear that Bush's conservative Christian allies are out to turn them into second-class citizens, then the Democrats win.
Republicans can argue that the fears they seek to exploit are more immediate and represent a greater threat to Israel and Western civilization itself. But as the war drags on and Sept. 11 recedes further into the background, Jews' insecurity about their place in American society and their nightmares about their Christian neighbors - even if unjustified - may have a greater impact on their votes than anything Islamists do.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.