What do the four leading candidates for president of the United States, two Democratic and two Republican, have to say about the Middle East? It's a timely question because the campaign for president has begun in earnest. Perhaps the clearest insight

What do the four leading candidates for president of the United States, two Democratic and two Republican, have to say about the Middle East? It's a timely question because the campaign for president has begun in earnest.

Perhaps the clearest insight into the candidates' positions comes from James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a leading Arab-American political operative. He's a man President Bill Clinton has praised as a "remarkable voice for calm and clarity, no matter how heated the issues" and "one of the most forceful, intense and brutally honest people who ever came to the White House to see me." He's also a liberal democrat and one of Israel's most determined foes in the United States.

Zogby's recently-published report, "The State of the Middle East Policy Debate," begins with a look at public opinion. He finds that "a significant partisan split" exists on Middle Eastern issues. Specifically, Republicans are "more hard-line and pro-Israel" than Democrats.

This difference is very substantial, with Republicans three times more friendly to Israel than Democrats. Thus, in response to the question, "With regard to the Middle East, how do you feel the next president should relate to the region," 22 percent of Republicans said he should be pro-Israel, while only 7% of Democrats opted for this reply. (It also bears noting that among born-again Christians, the percentage on the pro-Israel side rises to 29%.)

Not surprisingly, the presidential candidates reflect this difference in their ranks, with Republicans far more pro-Israel than Democrats. On the key issue of US policy toward the peace process, for example, Al Gore and Bill Bradley endorse the current even-handed approach of pressing Israel and the Arabs alike for concessions. In stark contrast, George Bush and John McCain (as well as every lesser candidate) denounce this approach and insist that, if elected president, they will not pressure democratic Israel into making concessions to the likes of Yasser Arafat and Hafez Assad.

Same goes with the question of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On one side, Zogby found, "every Republican candidate has promised to make the embassy move a priority for his administration." In contrast, both Gore and Bradley "have taken more cautious stands," not endorsing a move of the embassy outside the context of Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians.

And so too on Iraq. All four leading candidates endorse the current tough approach to Iraq, leading Zogby to describe their outlook as one of "near consensus." But Republicans take what Zogby calls "a characteristically tougher approach," with all of them advocating steps to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein, something the two Democrats shy away from.

In all, whether the question is Israel or Iraq, the candidates agree on basics (friendly to Israel, hard-line on Iraq), with the Republicans more emphatic in their views than either Democrat. This has several important implications.

First, the Arab and Moslem lobbies remain unable to affect the policy outlook of presidential candidates. Zogby can rail against the candidates' agreement as "pandering" to Jewish voters with "worn-out cliches" and "dangerous and provocative posturing," but he can do little about it.

Second, several times more members of the Republican Party are friendly to Israel than are Democrats, and their leaderships reflect this disparity.

Third, Jews nonetheless still overwhelmingly favor the Democratic Party.

This is because they care less over time about policy toward Israel and more about domestic American concerns. An insightful observer of the US Jewish scene, Jonathan S. Tobin, explains that "a pro-choice stand on abortion and a willingness to vilify the National Rifle Association is the red meat that most Jewish audiences hunger for, not speeches about Jerusalem."

Finally, despite a diminished focus on the Middle East among American Jews, a consensus exists in the United States as a whole about the rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq, and this consensus no longer depends on a Jewish lobby to sustain it.