WRMEA Archives 1988-1993

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 20, 21, 85

Election Watch

H. Ross Perot: His Candidacy Is More Serious Than His Mideast Policy

By Lucille Barnes

"H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who is considering running as a third-party candidate for president, is an unknown quantity when it comes to Israel."
-Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 1, 1992

"He is a believer in the Israeli way of defending itself. I am told by those who know him that he would be a very interesting person to deal with and probably very friendly."
Executive Director Thomas A. Dine, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, April 5, 1992

The two differing assessments above of 61-year-old billionaire H. Ross Perot illustrate the advantage enjoyed by a newcomer to politics. The truth is that the diminutive, crew-cut Texan is a cipher not just on the Middle East, but on virtually everything.

A Naval Academy graduate from Texarkana, Perot ranked only in the middle of his Annapolis class academically, but was voted its president. After the Navy, Perot became a star salesman for IBM and then founded Electronic Data Systems Corporation. He became a billionaire by selling his company to General Motors.

As with many business geniuses, Perot's skills are those required to attract and hold good employees, get contracts, keep friends at the local and state government levels, and develop good relations with the communities in which he does business. He has an extraordinary flare for public relations.

On the "issues," however, if he seems evasive, it is not the ducking and weaving of a Gov. William "Slick Willie" Clinton or a President George "I'll do whatever I have to be re-elected" Bush. Ross Perot doesn't respond to questions journalists fire at him because he doesn't have the answers.

Whether, eventually, the media gives him a free ride, as it did Ronald Reagan for more than eight years, or begins publicly to dissect his evasions may depend largely upon how Israel's boosters within the media perceive the effects of Perot's candidacy on the re-election prospects of George Bush.

Meanwhile, Perot gets away with non-answers as in this exchange on his Middle East policies from the April 16 radio and television show, "Larry King Live":

King: Israel and the Middle East: Are you a supporter of Israel?

Perot: Yes, Israel is our friend. You don't forget your friends. Pretty simple.

King: Would you try to bring about peace? Would you oppose Israel's building more settlements on the West Bank?

Perot: No. Let's start. Israel is not our only friend in the Middle East. But let's just say, you start with a cornerstone that Israel, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, has been our friend. The greatest thing that could happen to Israel and the Middle East is to have stability and peace. Now the question, how do you get it? Okay. Well, my recommendation there is you put a world-class negotiating team over there, not flying back and forth. We've got great people but they've got so many responsibilities, they can't stay there. And just stay there and work with all these countries. Now, you're looking for a cliff-climb here because the Middle East, by definition, is unstable.

King: So, and you would do it in the Middle East, not in the United States?

Perot: Absolutely. No, just go there and stay because it is so important to the world. It's not just to protect this country or that country. The Mideast is very important to the world. All those poor people in Iraq would have preferred that we didn't have a war, trust me.

King: Would you help Russia out?

Perot: Absolutely. Very simple. . .

If Bush responded to every question with "absolutely," "very simple," or both, and then nothing else except a promise to appoint a team to deal with it, the media would flay him alive. With Perot, however, the media discussion revolves instead around whether he actually could win, or is just a "spoiler" who could prevent Bush's re-election.

The elfin Texan came to national attention because of his Christmas 1969 attempts to fly two planeloads of food supplies into Hanoi for American prisoners of war. The attempt was unsuccessful, but when they were released American prisoners said their conditions improved after Perot's efforts.

He has stayed in the limelight first because Oliver North sought, and received, Perot's help in trying to ransom U.S. hostages in Italy and Lebanon, and later because of his interest in American military personnel labeled "missing in action" whom he believes are being held against their will in Indo-China. Oddly, polls show that only a miniscule number of Americans still believe these reports. Nor are most Americans even aware of his bizarre charges that the U.S. government has written off the MIAs because it fears if they return home they will expose alleged drug and arms dealings in Southeast Asia by U.S. officials.

Whatever Americans think of his ideas, which sound wild even compared to the stranger-than-fiction reality of Iran-Contra, they seem taken with the man, and his vows to save $180 billion by rooting out "waste, fraud, and abuse," another $100 billion in unpaid taxes by improving IRS computers, and still more by making European and Asian countries pay the costs of U.S. troops there and putting means tests on social security and Medicare benefits.

Regarding the Middle East, Perot is best known for getting two of his company's employees safely out of a jail in Iran, where they had been computerizing the national health care system. What few realize is that the daring rescue was not during the Khomeini era, but in the final chaotic days of the Shah's rule. A Perot Iranian employee fomented a riot in which a mob rushed the jail and released all of the prisoners. Perot's rescue team then drove his two escaped employees 540 miles to Turkey.

The contrast to official helplessness and handwringing during the 444 days Americans were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran made Perot look extremely effective. But Perot's operations were conducted during the very last days of a tottering U.S. ally, not during the era of the sternly anti-American regime that followed.

Perot opposed Bush administration efforts to get Saddam Hussain's army of occupation out of Kuwait by military means, saying the emir of Kuwait was not worth fighting for. He advocated, instead, sending a commando force, with possible Israeli help, to assassinate Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussain.

Long Odds Against Independents

The American political system makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to be elected. There is no doubt that Americans, perhaps even more than usual at this time in an election year, are professing unhappiness with the potential nominees of both major parties. Nor is there much doubt that the actual campaign that follows the two nominating conventions will be a dirty one, involving smears against the candidates and vulnerable members of their families. Both parties are holding their fire at this point, saving the worst for later, when it will have maximum pre-election impact.

However, even this is unlikely to help Perot very much, despite such straws in the wind as an April 10 ABC News survey of 1,009 voters in which 38 percent supported Bush, 28 percent supported Clinton, and 24 percent supported Perot.

In March 1980, polls showed that independent candidate Rep. John Anderson, an experienced politician and stem-winding orator who had little trouble raising funds, had the support of nearly 25 percent of the electorate. But in November he received only 6.7 percent of the popular vote and did not win the electoral votes of a single state.

By election time, the significance of Anderson's third-party campaign had been reduced solely to whether or not he was a "spoiler." In fact, he may have spoiled Jimmy Carter's chances of re-election in a close campaign with Ronald Reagan.

Perot looks more like a spoiler than a winner.

Anderson was a liberal Republican, and most of those who voted for him probably would otherwise have chosen middle-of-the-road Democrat Carter over arch-conservative Republican Reagan. Nor is there any doubt that much of Anderson's funding came from pro-Israel Jewish donors. American Jews gave Anderson 20 per cent of their vote.

Some Jews voted for Anderson because he personified their conservative economic and liberal social agenda. Others unabashedly sought to deny Carter a second term in which he might have finished what he started at Camp David by forcing Israel to freeze Jewish settlements and withdraw from the West Bank in return for a peace with the Palestinians comparable to the Carter-brokered Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Remarks by delegates at the April 1992 convention in Washington, DC of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel's principal U.S. lobby, indicated that some pro-Israel activists now see Perot as a means of blocking a Bush second term. In an interview with The Washington Post, Chicago lawyer Stuart Levine, a coordinator of National PAC, the largest pro-Israel political action committee, echoed AIPAC Executive Director Tom Dine's positive assessment quoted above:

"It's always refreshing when someone from outside the political process gets involved in it," Levin said. "With Perot, it's even more refreshing because he's somebody that the process has to pay a lot of attention to."

Edward Klaben, a Dayton, Ohio businessman attending the AIPAC convention, told The Washington Post, "Before Perot arrived on the scene, most Jews would prefer to vote for none of the above. But now he's emerged as a serious anti-Washington establishment candidate. I think he's the best thing that's happened to the election process."

Perot, whose net worth is estimated at between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion, has said he is willing to finance his campaign with up to $100 million of his own funds, almost twice the legal limit on donated funds. Because Jews now constitute less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, their votes are significant only in the states of New York, Florida, Illinois and California, and perhaps marginally in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Therefore, since he needs neither Jewish campaign donations nor Jewish votes, it would follow that Perot would pay little attention to how he is assessed by Israel's U.S. lobby. Nor, since Perot looks more like a spoiler than a winner, will his stands on Middle East questions be the principal factor in his treatment by the pro-Israel community.

What will influence that treatment is whether polls indicate he will take more votes away from Bush, whom pro-Israel activists would like to see defeated, or from Clinton who, character problems aside, takes generally pro-Israel positions on the Middle East.

Surprisingly, a New York Times/CBS News poll of 1,650 nationwide telephone respondents showed 44 percent of voters choosing Bush, 31 percent choosing Clinton, and 16 percent choosing Perot also indicated that Perot had drawn slightly more of his support from potential Clinton than potential Bush voters. This led to press speculation that Democrats might find a way to "dump" an unelectable Clinton and offer Perot the nomination. At this writing, the idea seems far-fetched.

If it appears, therefore, that Perot is neither a potential winner nor a potential spoiler of a Bush victory, the media may soon see to it that this "protest candidate" with a colorful past has a bleak political future.

The Bush Bandwagon

"It's clear that George Bush has written off the Jewish vote. His policies reflect it."
-Pro-Israel "Action PAC" Executive Director Robert Bassin, Washington Jewish Week, Feb. 27, 1992

"In my community we speak of George Bush like we speak of Haman. But he may be a Haman we have to deal with for another term."
-Unnamed pro-Israel lobbyist quoted in Washington Jewish Week, April 9, 1992

George Bush will likely emerge from the Republican convention looking stronger than he did four years earlier, when he had to overcome a deficit in the polls to beat Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. The conventional wisdom holds, nevertheless, that the pro-Israel establishment will be out for Bush's scalp as a result of his thwarting of Israel's request for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees which, until he "went public" to stop Congress from voting for them, looked like a sure thing in an election year.

In this case, however, the conventional wisdom may be behind the curve. Pro-Israel activists are reassessing the chances of beating Bush in 1992. Their concern is the damage done to Gov. William Clinton's "electability" by the draft-dodging, infidelity, and marijuana charges and to his "credibility" by his tricky answers.

Israel's supporters want a winner. Many have concluded that unless they can come up with something extremely damaging to Bush in the last months of the campaign, there is no stopping him. Pro-Israel officials in the Bush administration are seeking to convince the president he can have it both ways. By making some conciliatory gestures to Israel's new government after its June elections, they say, he can recoup Jewish support, or at least the support of the 28 percent of American Jews who say they voted the Republican ticket in 1988.

Working the opposite side of the same street are liberal members of the U.S. pro-Israel establishment who are prepared to credit the Bush administration's "get tough" policies for the fall of Yitzhak Shamir's hard-line Likud government, and for whatever improvements in U.S.-Israeli relations result from Israel's June election. They, too, reason that in an election year Bush might yet give something to a new Israeli government if it agrees to stop building settlements in the occupied territories and makes vague promises to trade land for peace. Between the Israeli elections in June, and the U.S. elections in November, there may be some repositioning within the pro-Israel establishment in the U.S. in hopes of eliciting pre-November Bush administration concessions.

Bush is constrained, however, by understandings with his Gulf War allies. Concessions to a new Israeli government that jeopardized a return by the Arabs to the peace table could deal a serious blow to Bush policies around the world, which depend upon the cooperation of moderate Arabs. Economic recovery in the U.S., the most important single factor in Bush's re-election prospects, would also be jeopardized by a sudden increase in petroleum prices resulting from Arab anger. Major Bush concessions to any Israeli government for short-term U.S. election advantage therefore seem unlikely.

New York: Costly for Clinton

"He [Clinton] will probably get the biggest part of the Jewish vote by default. He seems to be right on the issues that are important to Jewish voters, but some doubt whether he could really beat Bush."
-New York businessman and AIPAC convention delegate Joseph Friedman, in April 7 Washington Post interview.

Arkansas Governor William Clinton emerged from the New York primaries the almost sure-fire Democratic presidential nominee. It should have pleased the Israel lobby because, as Boston Globe Editor H.D.S. Greenway wrote: "Bill Clinton has a position paper that 'strongly supports President Bush's efforts to get Israel and the Arab states to sit down at the peace table,' but says that 'the president's misguided criticisms of Israel in recent months have set the peace process backward.' The strategic relationship with Israel should be strengthened, Clinton says."

Since Greenway wrote those words on Feb. 13, Clinton has logged many hours wearing a yarmulka while repeating his positions in synagogues. The 55 percent of the Jewish vote cast for him in the New York primary showed it was not in vain.

But pro-Israel activists fear that Clinton emerged from the rough-and-tumble Democratic primary campaign there mortally wounded politically. The perceptible Jewish concern, however, has only spurred Clinton to new heights of pro-Israel oratory.

"In its new strident rhetoric, public and private, against the Jewish community, the reference to how the Jewish community will vote in elections. . . that sort of thing, this administration has ever so subtly. . . broken down the taboo against overt anti-Semitism," Clinton told New York's Jewish Community Relations Council just before the primary. "And that is very, very dangerous at any time."

In a late March appearance before a Jewish audience in New York, Clinton said: "My position is we now have the parties at the peace table. Why is the United States only hitting on Israel and never saying publicly anything about what changes the Arabs have to make?"

While a majority of the New York Jewish community clearly was impressed, New York City teacher Irene Blumberg may have spoken for a wider constituency when she asked a New York Times reporter:

"What does this bubba know from bar mitzvahs?"

Lucille Barnes covers the Washington political scene for U.S. and foreign news publications.