Jesse Jackson takes on a 'hot' issue

By , Mr. Sperling is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist

Outside of the President, the politician who will attract the biggest crowd of reporters these days is Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Part of it is because media people are a bit bored by now with the other long-distance runners in the protracted Democratic race. But mostly, the Rev. Mr. Jackson represents something new in American politics.

The other morning at a reporter's breakfast, Mr. Jackson proved an even bigger ''draw'' than either Secretaries Caspar Weinberger or George Shultz, who had appeared on separate occasions at the same forum recently.

A few days earlier, before a Gridiron Club banquet audience, Jackson had said , with a twinkle, about the required humorous speech he was about to make: ''I've been trying so long to get people to take me seriously - I might blow it all by being funny here.''

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But Jackson and his candidacy are being taken very seriously: too much so in certain quarters. The security from Secret Service at Jackson's breakfast appearance was extremely tight, with bomb ''sweeps'' being made of the hotel in advance of his coming and every reporter guest checked carefully for identity. Jackson has been receiving a great many threats.

Some people see him as an emotional crowd-rouser, even a demagogue. As he was on ''Sixty Minutes'' recently, Jackson now is showing a restrained side and also an ability to discuss national and global affairs in detail and with knowledge. A number of reporters have commented on how ''articulate'' they are finding him to be. And his opponents are all saying he is ''formidable.''

The issue the press is probing the most these days with Jackson is not in domestic affairs. Jackson's views on giving more support to the disadvantaged are well known, and he has already stated and restated his liberal position on most issues.

No, the question he gets most relates to his position on the Mideast, where he is stirring up anxiety among some members of the US Jewish community.

This colloquy at the breakfast session therefore is most instructive on where Jackson stands on this subject.

Question: Is it your position that you don't tilt toward either Israel or the Arabs?

''I think I have a comprehensive Middle East policy which flows from putting America's interests first. And that means reconciling several forces in the Middle East.

''I support Israel's right to exist within recognized international boundaries. But supporting the right to exist does not mean supporting the right to occupy.''

Here Jackson paused, then continued:

''Secondly, we have a human-rights interest in Palestinian self-determination. We could not in good conscience allow Palestinians to remain nomads forever and live under occupation.

''And we have an interest in the territorial integrity of Lebanon and sparing it from being partitioned and in normalizing ties with the Arab world.''

Then Jackson charged the President with ''tilting'' toward Israel, without receiving the necessary quid pro quo: ''I think part of it should have involved Golan Heights annexation and West Bank settlements, expanding settlements there, and offensive use of US weapons going into Lebanon.''

Another Jackson pause, then this firmly expressed observation: ''I get the impression that there is too much reluctance by our leadership to put this issue fairly and openly because of a fear of being accused of being guilty of being anti-Semitic. . . . My inclination is to measure human rights by just one yardstick: I don't know how we can have a foreign policy unless we play by one set of rules. I don't understand anything else.''

Jackson is saying what many politicians have feared to say: ''I would like to think,'' he emphasized, ''that when we speak of our interests in the Mideast we must reserve the right as American leaders to engage in as much debate and dialogue as is necessary without being called anti-Semitic.''

Jackson is hitting hard at a subject that is usually regarded as out of bounds to politicians. It is considered to be a ''losing'' position, since, for Democratic candidates particularly, it could cost them both Jewish support and large quantities of campaign contributions that come from members of the Jewish community.

Is Jackson foolhardy? Is he courageous? How will his outspokenness play out in his campaign? We must wait and see.

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