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His Israel views not 'knee-jerk'

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000

An Orthodox Jew, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman has been a steady friend of Israel and a strong supporter of Israeli positions in the Middle East peace talks.

As a result, his addition to the Democratic ticket is drawing praise from U.S. Jewish groups while getting a tepid reception from Arab-American and Palestinian interests.

"I think anyone should regard Mr. Lieberman's views on the Middle East as extremely pro-Israel," said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "He is one of the most pro-Israel senators in a Congress filled with people who try to outdo each other in deference to any Israeli demand on the United States.

"I think it should be observed that one of the few people who can compete with Mr. Lieberman in deference to Israel is Vice President Gore, so his addition to the Gore campaign doesn't really change anything."

Jason Isaacson of the American Jewish Committee thinks the Connecticut senator is more open-minded than his critics say.

"One thing he's always brought is independent judgment to every issue and the Middle East is no exception," said Isaacson, director of government and international affairs.

"Sen. Lieberman is a friend of Israel and a supporter of a close U.S.-Israeli relationship but he also has a broad understanding of issues across the Middle East -- the danger of weapons proliferation, the danger of radical movements that exploit religion for political ends and the need to continue containing the ambitions of Saddam Hussein. He is also well-respected and known in the Arab world -- when he traveled to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War he was very warmly received."

According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which reflects Palestinian and Arab-American views, Lieberman has received more than $200,000 over the years from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.

The magazine's analysis of congressional voting records found that Lieberman "isn't knee-jerk" in his positions, says Shirl McArthur, author of the study.

Last year, Lieberman was among 60 senators who signed a letter to President Clinton opposing early release of Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life in prison for selling U.S. military secrets to Israel.

Lieberman also opposed Israel's planned sale of a $250-million airborne radar system to China. The deal was scrubbed last month under intense pressure from Congress and the Clinton administration, which feared the sophisticated system would enhance China's ability to operate in and around the Taiwan Strait.

McArthur also praised Lieberman for co-sponsoring a 1999 Senate resolution that condemned discrimination against Muslims and recognized the contributions of American Muslims.

However, Lieberman's strong support of Israeli positions in the Palestinian peace talks has drawn criticism from Arab-American groups as well as at least one liberal Jewish organization.

The 58-year-old Democrat was among the sponsors of a bill to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- a highly controversial proposal given the competing claims to the city by Israelis and Palestinians.

"We oppose that because there's certainly been a strong indication that if the United States were to proceed with moving the embassy, it would have a very negative impact in terms of the perception of the U.S. as an impartial arbiter," said Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, an American Zionist group committed to the peace process.

However, Roth said, Peace Now regards Lieberman "as somebody we could work with even though we haven't always agreed with him on every specific vote he's taken."

If Arab-American and Jewish groups agree on one thing about Lieberman's selection to the Democratic ticket, it is that it represents a big advance for minorities.

"It's gratifying that in the United States it's now possible for a member of a religious and ethnic minority to be nominated for vice president," said Ibish, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "There's an element of promoting diversity in this, which is good, but Mr. Lieberman's views, which are entirely consistent with those of Mr. Gore on the Middle East, cause us a great deal of concern."

But, Ibish quickly added, "none of this should imply support for the GOP ticket. Whatever concerns we have are matched pound for pound by a Bush-Cheney administration."

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