Washington pundit voices optimism on Rabin, peace

Talking politics with Washington journalist Morton Kondracke is a little like being a panelist on "The McLaughlin Group."

The long-running PBS show that made Kondracke a star talking-head is a rapid-fire political slugfest in which pundits predict, pontificate and put-down their colleagues with pointed one-liners in an intellectual free-for-all.

Kondracke, who is speaking to the annual regional meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 10, delivers soundbite-sized pearls of Washingtonian wisdom on Middle East politics as if on cue.

Pointing to AIPAC, he says Israel's leading lobby on Capitol Hill should have campaigned more forcefully this spring to increase Israel's current $3 billion in U.S. foreign aid — even in the face of the isolationist winds blowing through Congress.

"I would have liked to have seen them fight more on this one," Kondracke says of AIPAC. But the lobby decided not to push the issue in Congress, where far-right Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

Since AIPAC has sought to boost aid to Israel by trumpeting the Jewish state as a bastion of Western democracy, the retreat was seen as "morally suspect," he says.

In the GOP-led Congress, AIPAC apparently "felt it couldn't win" more aid, Kondracke says, "so it just took the money and ran." In fact, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Studio City), and other Jewish members of Congress "were furious." The decision, he adds, breaks with "the AIPAC tradition. They just quit on this one."

Kondracke has long been an outspoken Israel supporter. A former executive editor of the neoconservative weekly The New Republic, he is currently executive editor and columnist of the feisty independent Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call.

At close range, Kondracke has watched the fireworks over GOP presidential contender Bob Dole's bill to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He sees Dole's move as "simply presidential politics," and ill-timed.

"Why mess up the peace process?" he asks. "Everybody wants to move the embassy. It's a question of timing and circumstances."

Though Dole appeared to push the embassy bill this spring, the Senate majority leader may have actually wanted to stall the measure, which was attached to a larger foreign aid measure that faltered before Congress' summer break. Kondracke believes Dole really may have been "kicking this [cause] down the road" to curry favor with American Jews.

Kondracke, a moderate Democrat, does not see the increasingly right-wing GOP eroding the Democratic Party's traditional Jewish base, estimated at some 80 percent of American Jews.

"I have seen very little in the way of Jewish defection from the Democratic Party," he says. "The more the religious right is a part of the Republican coalition, the more scared off the Jewish community is going to be."

As for Israel's right wing, which has tried to make inroads into American Jewish politics, Kondracke says the Likud has not made much progress.

"Most of Washington is on Labor's side," he says.

Republicans such as Helms and New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato have criticized Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's peace policies, but Kondracke chalks this up largely to domestic partisan politics.

"It is partly their opposition to Clinton — anything he's for they're against," he says. In D'Amato's case, "he is currying favor with Likudniks [such as New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind] in his state as well."

Rabin faces several potential crises, Kondracke says. Evidence could emerge that "this [peace accord] is all a trick, that [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat and Hamas are working hand in glove," he says.

Or, "Arafat can get killed" by Hamas, or "prove a disaster in not being able to handle Hamas" as it continues its terrorist campaign.

But Kondracke remains cautiously optimistic that Rabin — despite many potential landmines — will remain on the path to peace.

"As long as it looks like the Palestine Liberation Organization is moving in the right direction, the Israelis will persist in the peace process and the U.S. government will support them," he says.

"Through a narrow channel, [Rabin] might just succeed," Kondracke adds. "I admire him enormously. He thinks he was put on earth to bring Israel through this terrible passage, and he is doing it."