WASHINGTON -- An unpublicized Israel Bond dinner held at The Club in Birmingham, Ala., on May 5 conveyed good news for the expanding Republican majority and bad news for the endangered roadmap that supposedly leads to a Palestinian state.
The Jewish community event in Alabama honored a distinguished businessman named Harold Ripps. What made it politically significant was that six politicians were among the approximately 250 people in attendance, and all six were conservative Southern Republicans. Five were Alabamans, led by Gov. Bob Riley, and the sixth was former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, who is running for governor of Mississippi this year.
An all-Republican political roster for such an event signified progress for serious GOP efforts to end absolute Democratic domination over the small but important Jewish constituency. The question is whether that constrains President Bush's pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The private assessment by important Republicans is that it should and that it does.
Israel Bond dinners not long ago were the exclusive province of Democratic politicians, and that is what makes what happened in Birmingham so remarkable. In addition to Riley and Barbour, the Republicans attending were Congressmen Spencer Bachus and Robert Aderholt, plus two state senators.
Their presence reflects George W. Bush's post-2000 popularity in the Jewish community, thanks mostly to his staunch support for Israel. While a small minority nationally, Jews are disproportionately influential. That is partly true because of fund-raising, but what is really important is their potentially decisive role in Florida, New York, California, Illinois, Michigan and Maryland. They conceivably could spell the difference between victory and defeat in the 2004 presidential election.
The conventional wisdom inside the Republican hierarchy has always been that seeking the Jewish vote is even more of a fool's errand than going after African-Americans. I have heard many Republican politicians voice the vulgar old saw that Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans -- contending that they are irredeemable Democrats.
No longer, say hardheaded Republican leaders, who insist they can get 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004. They argue that social and economic liberalism now runs a poor second to support for Israel, and believe they for the first time have outdone Democrats in cheering the Jewish state. There is no more unyielding supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies than House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the exemplar of muscular Republicanism.
But what about George W. Bush's advocacy of the roadmap? He surely had to embrace it to retain Britain in the Iraq war coalition and keep moderate Arab states friendly. The question is whether he will risk Jewish votes by pressing for Middle East peace.
Republican activists leave no doubt about their views. DeLay has called the roadmap "a confluence of deluded thinking between European elites," the State Department bureaucracy and American intellectuals. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an intimate adviser of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, called the roadmap a conspiracy by the State Department and foreign powers "to work against U.S. policies."
That outlook, if not the harsh rhetoric, is widely shared among the Republican Party's shrewdest political strategists. Haley Barbour, one of the six Republicans at The Club in Birmingham, commends Bush for advocating the roadmap. Barbour, however, does not want the president to follow Bill Clinton's example and press the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peace agreement. Such a hands-off attitude would amount to a death sentence for the roadmap.
Indeed, its vital signs have been weak anyway. Secretary of State Colin Powell was rebuffed on his recent visit to Israel when he sought Sharon's approval for the roadmap. Sharon accepted last Friday after receiving assurances from Bush, but it is no secret that the prime minister detests the very idea of a Palestinian state and sees Israel locked in a hundred years war.
That confronts George W. Bush with a classic presidential decision that may forge his place in history. Should he follow Colin Powell's advice that American leadership on creating a Palestinian state is essential for peace in the Middle East? Or, should he follow the path urged by his party's leaders to guarantee his re-election?