Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December/January 1991/92, Page 13

Election Watch

Cuomo and Brown on the Middle East: As Different as East and West

By Lucille Barnes

It took New York's ''Hamlet on the Hudson," Gov. Mario Cuomo, longer to decide whether or not to seek the Democrat ic nomination for president than it would take any one issue voter on the Middle East to decide whether or not to support him.

Journalist Lally Weymouth, daughter of Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, started to clarify things when she suggested in an interview published in the Post Nov. 10 that Cuomo was "provincial," had not "traveled abroad very much," and was "lacking knowledge and familiarity with foreign affairs."

Cuomo responded: "Does that mean [Secretary of State James] Baker couldn't do Israel because he'd never been there?"

Asked whether he now considers it was a mistake for him to support continuing sanctions and reaching a compromise with Iraqi President Saddam Hussain last year instead of supporting armed action to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, Cuomo responded:

"I never said we shouldn't go to war. I said we shouldn't go to war now. . .I'm with Colin Powell. If you are going to war, you had better defang Saddam Hussain and get rid of chemical, biological, nuclear [weapons]. If you don't do that, there is no excuse for going to war and taking lives . . . I said, 'you can make a deal' . . . In the end, we did make a deal, only a very bad one.''

Cuomo said the Bush administration did a ''wonderful job'' in organizing its forces during the war but called its policy leading up to the war a " disaster " because " it invited the darn war, and boxed Israel in."

Predictable Politics

If none of the above is exceptionable, there is little doubt that voters concerned with the Middle East will find much to ponder in what Cuomo said about aid to Israel and the peace process. Following is the full text of that portion of Ms. Weymouth's interview:

"Cuomo contrasted his staunch support of Israel with Bush administration policy: 'It offended me when Bush killed those loan guarantees and said, " I took on all those powerful lobbyists," meaning the Jewish community. That was a cheap, pandering shot. All the while he was pretending he took on powerful political forces, he knew his position was very popular—his position against Israel. Let's face it, the intifada hurt Israel very badly (in terms of public opinion) and he knew that.'

"Cuomo favors granting Israel $10 billion in US loan guarantees immediately to assist in absorbing the flood of new Russian immigrants. Bush, of course, asked Congress in September to wait until January—essentially linking the loan guarantees to progress in the peace talks.

"'What should US policy toward Israel be? Israel must be perceived as what she is and has been—the only democracy in that part of the world—a nation tied to us by her fundamental values: democracy, free enterprise, fairness . . . the rule of law (as well as by) her worth to us as a security reserve in that part of the world,' said the governor.

"As for Secretary Baker's oft-stated belief that the United States should behave in the Middle East as an honest, neutral broker, Cuomo disparaged such talk saying, 'I don't believe you should be even-handed between the people who share your values and have been your staunch allies—always, without exception—and people who have not. . . We should now, in the context of the settlement discussion, be constantly alert not to demand that Israel do anything that will imperil her own security. If land-for-peace means introduction of a new hostile nation next door to Israel, then obviously that is wrong...We should protect Jerusalem and (Israel's) right to Jerusalem—Jerusalem is Israel's capital—one Jerusalem.'

"Cuomo sees the Bush administration's ambivalence toward Israel as symptomatic of a more general opportunism. 'I think this administration is one of the most political we have had,' he said. 'They are constantly striving to be on the popular side of issues."'

Ms. Weymouth didn't mention it, but Governor Cuomo also has been faulted for provincialism on the domestic scene. When he speaks in other states, or even away from the state capital in Albany, he generally fly's home immediately after speaking, sometimes not even waiting for the end of the program in which he is participating.

Unfamiliarity with people outside the country, or even outside the state of New York, may prove more of a handicap to the governor's campaign than some of his supporters realize at this point. According to Ms. Weymouth:

''What Cuomo didn't say, but his friends confide, is that he has developed what one described as 'a visceral dislike' of President Bush, whom Cuomo sees as 'a bloodless Wasp.'"

With friends like that, Cuomo may not need enemies. A majority of Americans, regardless of ethnic or religious background, seem at least vaguely in tune with so-called "Wasps.'' It's doubtful that many of these full, partial or honorary Wasps think of their kind as "bloodless." If Cuomo ''friends'' volunteer many more such confidences to journalists, New York's governor may learn that wasps, when angered, draw blood.

California Candor

Comments by another Democratic hopeful, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., were as different on the Middle East as the individualistic and unpredictable politics of California differ from the race-and religion-driven traditional politics of New York. In campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, California ax-Governor Brown has based his appeal on an anti-special interest pledge to accept no campaign contributions of more than $100.

If that seems a suicidal limitation on campaign fund-raising, it has a dramatically liberating effect on Brown's campaign rhetoric, which clearly isn't based upon pleasing political action committees.

Asked by Journalist John McLaughlin, in an NBC interview televised Nov. 3, whether he thought "George Bush is doing a good job in his Mideast peace conference" Brown responded:

''I have to say the fact that there are all those people over there talking in Madrid is a wonderful thing, and I think the president deserves a lot of credit for that.''

Asked by McLaughlin if he thought the president ''went too far in saying that there should be self-rule for the Palestinians within five years and that puts too much pressure on Israel?'' Brown answered:

"No, I think that's very consistent with the Camp David accords where economy was talked about, where there is a gradual process of democratization, where each side can learn to live with one another.''

McLaughlin, whose own Middle East opinions seem close to those of both Bush and Brown, but who clearly isn't used to hearing them from candidates running for election, pressed on:

''So you wouldn't do anything differently from the way Jim Baker and George Bush are handling the entire peace conference?"

''I can't see anything at this point that would improve on the way it is today," Brown replied. ''No, I can't. I wish I could come up with something better, and I think it's not clear where it's going to go, but I think all Americans have to hope and pray that we're going to make progress over there. "

To keep the record straight, Governor Cuomo's reference to Baker is based upon the fact that when the secretary of state first suggested in a May 1989 speech to the national convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that delegates persuade Israeli Prime Minister Shamir to "abandon the dream of 'Greater Israel,'" Baker had not yet visited Israel. Prior to the Madrid conference, however, Baker visited the Middle East eight times, and on some of those trips made multiple visits to Israel.

Maybe it's now time for New York's governor to visit "Greater Israel, " and then find out what most Americans think of giving it more aid by getting out of New York and into some of the 49 other United States. 


Lucille Barnes covers national politics for various publications.