There's a subject that many diplomatic experts hope will not come up often on the campaign trail - the Middle East. As Michael Dukakis and George Bush convey their views on foreign policy, they must maneuver gingerly on a topic that has strong resonance in the American Jewish community and is fraught with political pitfalls. In an election season it becomes de rigueur to be seen as a strong supporter of Israel and to say nothing that alienates Jewish voters.
Diplomatic analysts feel that the less said in a campaign the better. Earlier this year, in fact, some private efforts were made to persuade the Democratic and Republican campaign camps to ``cool it'' on the Middle East and agree to a truce of sorts on this sensitive issue.
``I told them I hoped neither side would take positions,'' says Lucius Battle, president of the Middle East Institute and a former United States diplomat.
``Everyone said, `You're absolutely right,' and I felt they were going to abide by that.... But at this point both candidates are beginning to take ridiculous positions.''
Ambassador Battle says the presidential contenders should avoid statements on the Middle East for two reasons:
One, because of changing attitudes within the American Jewish community because of developments in the West Bank.
Two, because a new president will be able to deal more effectively with the question if it has not been tangled in sometimes irresponsible comments made in the heat of the campaign.
``Everyone is better off if careless positions taken in the campaign do not foul up a wise beginning for a new administration,'' says Battle, who was one of those who sought to bring about an understanding between the two political camps.
But it is hard to control what happens on the stump. Following injection of the issue into the primary campaign in New York, for example, Governor Dukakis was dragged into discussing the subject of whether the US should move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He replied that an embassy should be located in the city that the host country considers its capital.
This brought sharp criticism from US Secretary of State George Shultz, who reiterated the US position that the final status of Jerusalem must be negotiated between Israel and the Arab states. Pressed on the point again, Dukakis, who has firm backing among Jewish voters, restated his support for moving the embassy.
``For some time he has accepted that Jerusalem is the capital [of Israel] and that our normal courtesy is to accept their choice of a capital,'' says James Steinberg, deputy issues director for the Dukakis campaign.
In 1988, however, the Democratic platform will be shorter and more general than in recent elections. Former Rep. Michael Barnes, a member of the drafting committee, says the platform is likely not to contain the 1984 plank that called for moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The two presidential front-runners have also been drawn into commenting on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Dukakis has refused to rule out the possibility. Vice-President Bush has said flatly he is against creating a Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a position enunciated by President Reagan when he lofted his 1982 peace initiative.
Both candidates are sounding out experts on the Middle East. Bush, criticized for setting up too pro-Arab a group to study the issue, has formed a more ideologically balanced committee to provide him with position papers.
Co-chaired by Richard Fairbanks, a former US diplomat, and Gordon Zacks, an Ohio businessman, the group has 20 or so members, including such Mideast specialists as Joseph Sisco, Geoffrey Kemp, Daniel Pipes, and Graeme Bannerman. Bush met with the group last week.
``My impression is that he was looking for in-depth analysis, not quick fixes,'' says Joyce Starr, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a participant in the group. ``We're a representative, nonpolitical group. Bush wants more dialogue, so we're just talking and debating the issues.''
Dukakis, for his part, is drawing on various scholars, including from the Boston academic community, and has talked with such influential Democrats as US Reps. Dante Fascell and Lee Hamilton and Sen. Paul Sarbanes.
Bush seems to be consciously avoiding raising the issue, even though he is playing to his strengths in foreign policy.
In an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors earlier this year, he ticked off the foreign policy problems that ``will demand our attention in the '90s'' but conspicuously omitted any mention of the Middle East.
Even if the issue is not dealt with substantially in the campaign, diplomatic observers agree that this will be a critical foreign policy concern for the new president. ``It's inescapable that the US involvement in the Middle East is crucial in terms of defusing tensions there,'' says Mr. Fairbanks, a private lawyer. ``Clearly it's a critically important issue.''