Is Kerry Watching President Bartlet For Prep Lessons?

The President we wish we had settled the Middle East crisis last week.

That’s how it looked, anyway, for the first 58 minutes and 30 seconds of the cliff-hanging season finale of The West Wing .

In case you were watching The Bachelor , here’s how it went: Martin Sheen, who supports John Kerry in real life and plays President Josiah Bartlet as his day job, was catching hell for not immediately launching a cruise missile against the Gaza headquarters of the Palestinian terrorist the F.B.I. said blew up the visiting U.S. delegation’s Chevy Suburban in the previous week’s episode. That’s where dramatic license comes in: The F.B.I. couldn’t find a terrorist bomber if he were hiding behind the drape John Ashcroft hung over the boobs of the Spirit of Justice holding the scales in the Justice Department lobby.

Be that as it may, the blast killed two Congressmen, one of their aides and Admiral Fitzwallace, President Bartlet’s good friend, who recently retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apparently after John Amos, who portrays him, couldn’t reach a new contract with the producers. Not only that, it gravely injured Donna, the sassy blonde with the overbite who’s assistant to the deputy White House chief of staff Josh Lyman, who flew to Germany to be at her hospital bedside, only to have the Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking Aussie photographer she’d had a fling with in Gaza City show up with flowers. Which Josh, who seems to have a secret crush on Donna, didn’t like one bit.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, chief of staff Leo McGarry, communications director Toby Ziegler, the snaky Vice President and the unbelievably smarmy Republican Speaker of the House (think Newt, with the frat-boy puss of Lindsey Graham) were all hounding the President to off the terrorist bastard before the next CNN news cycle-screw the collateral casualties, which the doofus C.I.A. director was guesstimating at around 50. But President Bartlet, being a principled New England liberal (more make-believe), wasn’t having it. Instead, he was relying on the advice of his dishy new deputy National Security Advisor, who was telling him he’d not only kill a lot of women and kids, but end what scant hope existed of ever convincing Israelis and Palestinians to get along.

In the middle of all this, the Israelis were acting true to life, which is to say, being impossible. Their ambassador (who bore uncanny resemblance to Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal ) was brushing aside all pleas for moderation with the “look-what-they-did-to-the-Tel Aviv-discotheque” speech, and her boss, the prime minister, wouldn’t even take President Bartlet’s phone calls; he was too busy imitating Ariel Sharon by launching a missile into a Gaza City apartment building, without bothering to tell his only ally in the world first.

Then hope: One of the sons of the Palestinian prime minister had a secret meeting with Josh in a German restaurant; said his dad thought that the president of the Palestinian Authority would as soon have peace as he would a bris; and that his dad the prime minister wanted the U.S. to broker a deal. As for President “Afrad” (as NBC lawyers apparently insist Yasir Arafat be known), the kid said not to worry: More than his contract was being terminated.

President Bartlet went for it, only to get suckered just before closing credits by Afrad, who appears to be as wily and as unkillable as the real Palestinian president.

We’ll have to wait until next season to see how it all turns out. In the meantime, we can consider how John Kerry handled the actual crisis in Gaza, which vomited up just as The West Wing was coming on.

It was a coincidence Mr. Kerry did not need.

Until then, he’d been having-finally-a good week. The news from Iraq was uniformly dismal and about to get worse; he’d had a jolly time campaigning in Oregon with Howard Dean, who congratulated him for having “whipped my ass” in Iowa (getting a high-five from Mr. Kerry in thanks); and a sit-down with “Ralph,” as he affectionately called the passive-aggressive egoist who put Dubya in the White House, appeared to go well. Mr. Nader didn’t drop out, but did allow that Mr. Kerry was “very presidential,” and even displayed a hitherto hidden sense of humor by opining that Mr. Kerry wasn’t as “cautious” as his chief advisor, the implacable Bob Shrum. The cake icing was Prince of Punditry Darkness Bob Novak reporting that Mr. Bush is in hot water with his base, who are threatening to stay home Election Day. (Why? They think he’s become Ted Kennedy.)

Over at Kerry campaign headquarters, they were breaking out noise-makers and blowing up balloons. Not for the convention-which looks to be a downer if Mr. Kerry, to facilitate a creative accounting scheme, delays accepting the nomination-but for the inauguration.

Then Israel-for which Mr. Kerry has had nothing but compliments since discovering that Jewish people reside in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri-had to go and spoil the party by shooting up Gaza.

The killing of a dozen unarmed kids and the casual flattening of several score homes upset even George Bush; well known for his love of animals, he may also have been distressed by the destruction of the local zoo, which left a wounded ostrich hopping down Gaza’s dusty streets. Whatever the cause, he had his U.N. ambassador abstain when the Security Council boxed Israel’s ears.

Mr. Kerry said nothing.

Instead, as if unhinged by the prospect of dealing with this mess as President, he did a 9.8 twisting backflip on the subject of abortion, saying that under the right circumstances, he might nominate a pro-lifer to the Supreme Court-a 180-degree reversal of what he’d been stating since 1992. His staff instantly got out the pooper-scooper, assuring reporters that there’d been no shift in the candidate’s position whatsoever. This was a fib, but it satisfied NARAL, which declined to utter anything that would assist Dubya in appointing federal judges another four years.

Barely had the Swift Boat commander weathered that tempest than another arose with the revelation that Ahmad Chalabi was not only a liar and a crook (which everybody knew already), but a spy for the Iranians in the bargain. This red-faced his neocon pals, who’d happily employed his W.M.D. fables as pretext for invading Iraq.

In its account of Chalabi’s fall, The Times listed supporters who’ve shaped Bush administration Middle East policy. They included: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; former Defense Advisory Board chairman Richard Perle (he resigned after it was found out that Boeing, whose tankers he was pushing, had a $20 million interest in the venture-capital firm where he’s a principal); Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith (he has a Jerusalem law office, and is on the record as believing that Arabs in “Judea” and “Samaria” have no legal claims); and White House Director of Mideast Affairs Elliott Abrams, pardoned perjurer (for lying to Congress about Iran-contra) and son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz, a neocon founding father.

Though The Times refrained from pointing out what these gentlemen have in common, besides fire-breathing, the most prominent (indeed, perhaps the only) Democrat in South Carolina, Senator Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, has been less bashful: “With Iraq no threat, why invade a sovereign country?” he asked in his newspaper column for the home folks. “The answer: President Bush’s policy is to secure Israel.

“Led by Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Charles Krauthammer, for years there has been a domino school of thought that the way to guarantee Israel’s security is to spread democracy in the area.

“Bush felt … spreading democracy in the Mideast to secure Israel would take the Jewish vote from the Democrats. You don’t come to town and announce your Israel policy is to invade Iraq.”

Lest any mistake his meaning, Mr. Hollings added that the Mossad, being “the best,” must have known Saddam had emptied the cupboard of W.M.D.’s, and that Paul Wolfowitz’s war-drum banging was effectively undertaken at the order of Jerusalem.

Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman promptly demanded a retraction, accusing Mr. Hollings of “anti-Jewish stereotyping,” “scapegoating” and “appeal(ing) to ethnic hatred.” Lest any mistake his meaning, Mr. Foxman further charged Mr. Hollings with “crudeness,” “ugliness” and “classical anti-Semitism.” This didn’t move the Senator, who has a history of making colorful comments that offend not only Jews (he once called Ohio’s Howard Metzenbaum “the Senator from B’nai B’rith”), but blacks, Japanese and Mexicans. Usually, though, Fritz apologizes or says he was just kidding-as was the case when he explained why “potentates from down in Africa” liked attending Law of the Sea conferences in Switzerland: “Rather than eating each other, they’d just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva.” But this time, Mr. Hollings lacked cause to budge. Though he has a sizable Jewish constituency in Charleston, he’s retiring after five terms.

Mr. Kerry said zero about Mr. Hollings (who endorsed his candidacy in January) and-just to be safe-zero about either Ahmad Chalabi or the neocons.

But the bugaboo won’t go away. There’ve been rumblings about “dual loyalties” and hidden agendas long before Mr. Hollings clumsily dragged them out of the closet. Critics-a number of whom happen to be Jews-note that in 1996, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle (who, according to Seymour Hersh, was picked up by F.B.I. wiretaps passing classified National Security Council information to the Israeli Embassy while on Scoop Jackson’s staff in the 1970′s) composed for the edification of then–Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a peace plan entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” It envisioned Syria and Iran scared to death about succoring Hamas and Hezbollah; Palestinians settling on dictated terms; and the whole troublesome lot pulling up stakes for Jordan, where they’d have plenty of real estate, as there’d be no more Hashemite monarchy.

All this coming to pass, however, was contingent on Step No. 1: Israel overthrowing Saddam.

That was too loony even for Mr. Netanyahu.

As amply documented by Bob Woodward and Richard Clarke, though, the dream lived on in the bosom of Wolfowitz & Co. The only change, it turned out, was that American G.I.’s would do the dirty work.

Relishing the prospect of Armageddon in the Holy Land, just like the Book of Revelation said, the Christian Right signed on, including Pat Robertson, who assured his TV flock that temporarily linking up with Jews was kosher, since they wouldn’t be admitted to the celestial country club once the Rapture occurred. Ranks were strengthened by the enlistment of tamer goyim, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, a virulent opponent of arms control whose days at Foggy Bottom are spent overseeing … arms control. The only piece missing was the opportune moment. Sept. 11 provided it.

Most mainstream journalists scrupulously avoid connecting the dots, chary of the likely reward. But there are exceptions. The Washington Post ‘s Robert G. Kaiser, Slate ‘s Michael Kinsley and Time ‘s Joe Klein-none famous Episcopalians-have written bravely and well of the Iraq-Israel connection, and the risks inherent for the Jewish state. Mr. Kinsley terms it “the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it.” Nor, says Mr. Kinsley, is there mention of the consequence of “this massive ‘Shhhhhhhhh!’”: Namely, “to make a perfectly valid American concern for a democratic ally in a region of nutty theocracies, rotting monarchies, and worse seem furtive and suspicious.”

Neocon predictions not panning out (Mr. Wolfowitz has gone from saying U.S. troops would be welcomed as “liberators” to not being able to keep track of the liberators’ K.I.A.’s) has made the pachyderm’s presence harder to ignore. Among the latest to publicly report a sighting is retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Tommy Franks’ predecessor at Southern Command, and George W. Bush’s special Mideast envoy-until Iraq came along. In an interview with 60 Minutes this Sunday, the general said the Dubya & Kerry prescription of “staying the course” meant “head[ing] over Niagara Falls” and identified Messrs. Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, Abrams and Libby (Cheney chief of staff Lewis “Scooter”) as leaders in setting it, with safeguarding Israel as their G.P.S.

“Everybody I talk to in Washington has known, and fully knows, what their agenda was and what they were trying to do,” said General Zinni. “If this was their war, and by everything that I understand, they promoted it and pushed it-certain elements in there certainly-even to the point of creating their own intelligence to match their needs, then they should bear the responsibility.”

The last time General Zinni aired such views, in a December interview with The Washington Post , syndicated columnist Joel Mowbray lumped him with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir (“Jews rule the world by proxy”) Mohamad.

With hand grenades like that for breakfast, it’s not exactly startling that John Kerry talks about Israel, or the war its self-appointed guardians helped cook up, only when political genuflection urgently compels him. On those occasions, he boasts about the 100 percent grade his Middle East votes won from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He’s right. AIPAC, in turn, boasts of its prowess at skewing U.S. Middle East policy out of even the pretense of even-handedness. It’s right, too.

Mr. Kerry’s aim is to limit George Bush’s take of the Jewish vote, which a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee and Foreign Affairs magazine puts at 31 percent-nearly double what Mr. Bush racked up in 2000. If the margin holds, it could be decisive in battleground states with significant Jewish population.

Mr. Kerry has tried just about everything to dent the numbers, including noting that his grandfather was Jewish, and that his brother Cameron, a convert to Judaism, is married to a nice Jewish girl. But it’s hard to best an opponent who’s literally willing to wage war to prove bona fides. Mr. Bush’s success in staving off Mr. Kerry was demonstrated last week, when his speech before AIPAC was interrupted 21 times by standing ovations and chants of “Four more years!” That trumped his chief of staff Andy Card, who got an AIPAC ovation two years ago for having learned enough Hebrew to proclaim in the vernacular: “The people of Israel live!”

A tactic candidate Kerry has yet to consider is standing for something. He used to, when talking about bringing a just peace to the Middle East. But that was before he became the presumptive Presidential nominee. If he needs cover for doing so again, he could conduct a census of the anti-war movement, where Jews outnumber the readers of Commentary , The Weekly Standard , The New Republic and the Forward put together.

Better still, Mr. Kerry could start paying attention to the people who actually live in Israel, where revulsion at the killings in Gaza and the daily humiliations visited upon Palestinians on the West Bank infinitely exceeds any you’d find in the spanking new headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The moral outrage of hundreds of thousands of Israelis-all never sure whether a bus ride will be their last-goes largely unreported in the U.S., which really is anti-Semitism.

In the service of expediency, though, Mr. Kerry prefers to take his cues from Ariel Sharon.

A million years ago, I had a private meeting with the general. Perhaps misled by my middle name, he’d gotten it into his head that I might be the ideal amanuensis for a memoir recalling Sabra and Shatila. For obvious reasons, the site of the flunked audition (a sealed-off floor of the Park Lane Hotel) wasn’t disclosed until 15 minutes beforehand. When the elevator door opened, I was greeted by two young Israelis you wouldn’t want to mess with, even if they weren’t toting Uzis. Freshly frisked, I was ushered to a living room to wait while the general-then a minor minister in a short-lived coalition government-completed a call to Tel Aviv, hoping to settle a dispute over domestic policy.

Matter resolved, he came in offering apologies. “Politics, politics,” he grumbled, heaving his massive bulk into an easy chair. “It’s constant maneuver. The nice thing about battle is that it’s simple: All you have to do is kill people.”

We both laughed, I remember.