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Which candidate will make Mideast peace a priority?

WASHINGTON — You have to give credit to Arab-Americans, and to the overlapping category of American Muslims, for knowing what side they are on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and for voting for those they believe would address their concerns.

Four years ago, they voted almost 2-1 for President Bush, thinking he would act like his father. Today, according to the Zogby poll, American Muslim voters are going 10-to-1 in the opposite political direction — for John Kerry over Bush. Not only do they see Bush's Patriot Act as discriminatory, most of these Americans dislike the president's unwavering support of Israel — including his backing of Ariel Sharon's security fence and the diplomatic isolation of Yasser Arafat.

This stunning reversal of opinion within a growing voting bloc is having an impact. For example, about a half million Arab-Americans live in Michigan, according to the Arab American Institute; most have turned strongly anti-Bush. That's why pollsters are counting Michigan, with its 17 electoral votes, as "leaning toward Kerry."

What about the other voting group that has a special interest in ending the war launched against Israelis after Yasser Arafat turned down the offer brokered by President Clinton?

Jewish-American voters who differ with their Arab and Muslim compatriots, one might logically conclude, would seriously consider supporting the candidate who many Israelis believe has been their best friend in the White House.

But such logic is misleading. Four years ago, candidate Bush received 20 percent of the "Jewish vote," about halfway between the low point for a Republican candidate (5 percent for Goldwater) and the high point (39 percent for Reagan). Today, it appears that Bush is getting only slightly more than the 20 percent he did last election.

Despite the fact that this president has firmly backed Israel's vigorous self-defense — and time and again vetoed or denounced lopsided U.N. votes to ostracize Israel — eight out of 10 Jewish-American voters will still vote as a bloc to oust him.

Why? To hold the bloc's usual support, Kerry has me-tooed every policy decision Bush has made affecting Israel — finding old armistice lines "unrealistic," keeping Jerusalem undivided, favoring Arafat's isolation. Though at first he told an Arab-American audience that Israel's security fence was "a barrier to peace," Kerry changed his mind to comport with Bush's support of Ariel Sharon's plan.

Kerry can legitimately point to dozens of pro-Israel votes. But the essence of his foreign policy — to rely on alliances with France, Germany, Russia and the United Nations to combat terror and enforce the peace — requires accommodation with the central demand of these Arab-influenced entities to lean heavily on Israel to make the very concessions Kerry now says he's against. No Kerry heat on Israel, no grand new global alliance.

One answer to the "why?" posed above is that most Jewish Americans quite properly base their vote on issues like social justice, civil liberty, economic fairness and not primarily on what may be good for Israel. That's been especially true when democratic Israel, like the United States, has had a close hawk-dove split.

But now, the great majority of Israelis and Americans are behind Sharon's decision to pull roughly 8,000 settlers out of Gaza. Because a zealous Jewish minority opposes giving up an inch of revered land, Israel is under great internal strain. Some rabbis are urging soldiers to disobey orders, tearing at the fabric of a Jewish state. Israel needs an ally, not a broker.

Kerry has lately echoed Bush's support of Sharon's daring plan of unilateral disengagement. But it is Bush who has the four-year record of standing up for Israel's right of self-defense. He has earned the trust of Israelis at a time when they most need a stalwart ally to make this plan succeed — and to help turn Palestine into a peaceful neighboring state.

Most Arab-Americans and U.S. Muslims, as is their right, disparage Sharon's plan. But in getting out of Gaza, the national interests of the United States and Israel are in accord.

As one who has all his life been a political minority within an ethnic minority, I hope that other longtime supporters of Israel will — at this moment of its political trial — allow themselves to give a little added weight in their voting decisions to candidates most likely to help gain a secure peace in the Middle East.

New York Times News Service