US vice presidents are usually seen as bit players on the international scene.
That wouldn't be true of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who is provoking delight, distrust, and diplomatic silence across the Middle East.
In a region where religion and political perceptions are daily tinder, the Connecticut senator's selection as the first Jew in US history to be a presidential running mate could be like lighter fluid.
Al Gore's selection of Mr. Lieberman comes at a delicate time for the Middle East, as peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are foundering and US relations with Egypt are growing strained.
Of immediate concern is Lieberman's stance on relations between Israel and the Palestinians. A declared Zionist and occasional critic of President Clinton's Mideast policy, Lieberman called Yasser Arafat, who heads the Palestinian Authority, "the villain who is unwilling to stop the terror" in a 1997 letter to the president. He also decried Mr. Clinton's "evenhandedness" in peace negotiations, asserting that Palestinians have not earned it.
Some analysts say a Jewish vice president will not have an overt affect on Mideast politics. Yet the US wields such influence here that the possibility can't be ignored. And for many in the Middle East, it is significant that Lieberman is not simply Jewish, but devoutly religious.
As an Orthodox Jew, he adheres to strict dietary laws and observes the Sabbath. This means that from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday he will not use electricity, do political work, or travel unless there is an emergency. In interviews, Lieberman has been open about how religion forms an integral part of his politics, calling it his anchor and "the center of who I've been all my life."
While he has drawn kudos for his religion-inspired approach, this very quality makes some observers nervous. "I have no problem that he is a Jew," says Mahdi F. Abdul-Hadi, head of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "I have a problem with his introducing religion into politics."
Mr. Abdul-Hadi says that when Camp David negotiators began discussing the issue of dividing Jerusalem, it brought religious differences to the fore. He worries that if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is made explicitly religious, "the bleeding will start."
Despite this, many analysts feel that if Lieberman exerts any influence on the peace talks, it could be positive. Kamel Abu Jaber, president of the state-funded Institute for Diplomacy in Amman, Jordan, says Lieberman's religion might be an asset. "Being Jewish gives him a perspective that is needed when looking at the Arab-Israeli conflict," he says.
On Amman's sun-baked streets, the view is much the same. "I don't believe Lieberman or Bush or Gore will have any negative effect on the peace process," says Palestinian taxi driver Yousef Harb. "The peace process is inevitable; the Israeli pullout from Lebanon is like shifting into first gear."
But as he wheels through city streets, Mr. Harb voices the widely held perception among Arabs that Jews control America's power structure. "Gore is also a Jew," he says, erroneously. "I believe 80 percent of Americans are Jews."
It's a theme that's echoed in Egypt. "Perhaps certain sectors of public opinion, some writers, will [see this as] evidence of the US's increasing yielding to Zionist pressures and bias toward Israel. That's going to be argued in Arab media at large," says Mohammed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of Cairo's Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
A Vice President Lieberman wouldn't affect US-Egypt relations much, says Mr. Said, who calls ties "highly strained." Areas of friction include the detention of an American academic on spy charges and US criticism of Egypt's stance on the Camp David talks. "America's Mideast policy is essentially in the hands of American Jews," he says, referring to senior US officials of Jewish origin. "So I don't think [Lieberman] will make much of a difference."
To no one's surprise, Israeli reaction has been considerably more upbeat. Political commentator Ze'ev Schiff argues that if the current peace talks break down, Mr. Arafat might well hope Lieberman makes it to the White House. "If the [current] talks don't work out, I don't see [Gore or Bush] willing to give much time to something that's considered a failure."
Separately, the fact that a Jew could rise to such a high public office has drawn admiration for the US, with newspaper editorials citing it as proof, in principle, that the last barriers to total equality and acceptance for American Jews have fallen. "People are really elated," says Efraim Inbar, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "A Jew made it!"
*Jumana Heresh in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society