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Bush, Kerry Voice Opinions on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - 2004-09-16

There has been a dramatic increase of Arab animosity toward U.S. policies in the Middle East, according to the latest opinion polls. According to Zogby International, a well known American polling firm, most of those surveyed in Arab countries said their first thought when asked about America is 'unfair policy.' A majority said the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key aspect of that perception. VOA's Brent Hurd looks at the views of President Bush and his Democratic Party challenger, John Kerry, on Middle East peace.

U.S. presidents and serious presidential contenders have always been supportive of Israel. Lately the debate has focused on how to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, to their mutual benefit. In a recent meeting with the Malaysian prime minister, President Bush spoke about an eventual Palestinian state.

"We talked about the Israeli-Palestinian issue and I told him that I am fully committed to the development of a Palestinian state that can live side by side with Israel in peace," Mr. Bush said.

To the president, the key is a Palestinian leader that Israel can trust and work with - meaning one without Yasser Arafat. When John Kerry spoke about the region in May, he did not dispute the premise - only the way the Bush administration is executing it.

"We will never expect Israel to negotiate peace without a credible partner," Mr. Kerry said. "And it is up to the United States in my judgment to do a better job of helping the Arab world to help that partner to evolve and to develop that effort."

Many analysts say there's little difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says there's little substance either.

"The phrase Palestinian state is meaningless unless it is defined," Mr. Wilcox said. "The devil is in the details and president Bush has said nothing about the borders of the Palestinian state, the fate of Israeli settlements or a solution to the problem of Jerusalem."

At one time it appeared the candidates differed over the controversial security barrier that Israel is building, some of it in the West Bank.

"Kerry said at one stage that he opposed the wall, that it was an obstacle to peace," Mr. Wilcox said. "But since then Kerry has pulled back and his policies, his statements about the disengagement plan, the wall, are very similar to those of President Bush.

Mr. Wilcox says Mr. Kerry's change in rhetoric is a cautious move. He says neither candidate wants to take a critical position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fear of losing votes from U.S. supporters of Israel.

Those supporters include some fundamentalist Christians who want to see Israel include territory the Palestinians say is theirs.

"There is a large and well-organized element in the American conservative Christian community that fervently supports the concept of greater Israel," Mr. Wilcox said. "They interpret the bible to say that if the Jews recover all the ancient homelands, than that will bring the second coming of the Christian messiah.

Phillip Wilcox says whichever candidate wins the election will be tasked with taking a fresh look at the conflict for the sake of U.S. national security. That argument is based on the idea that support for terrorism in the Middle East can never be eradicated until the Israeli-Palestinian issue is settled. Others suggest that U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East will also have to change. One thing won't change: whoever wins the election will consider Israel America's closest ally in the Middle East.