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Mideast conflict beside point for Muslims, Jews

If the Nov. 2 presidential election is as close as the 2000 election was, Jewish and Muslim groups could determine the outcome in some states. So it's no surprise that the campaigns are courting these religious groups seemingly at odds with each other.

What may be a surprise is that the issue that many suspected would be the most contentious _ the candidates' positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict _ does not appear to be a decisive factor for either group.

"What you're seeing is the Israeli-Palestinian situation, which is an important situation to both communities, being trumped by other issues that have taken priority," said John C. Green, who directs the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and tracks the voting behavior of religious groups.

Jews and Muslims comprise notable blocks of voters in key states in the hotly contested election. While surveys show Kerry with a huge national lead among both Jewish and Muslim voters, slight shifts either way can be pivotal in the so-called battleground states.

As a result, the campaigns of both Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush are courting Muslims and Jews, carefully treading on the sensitive issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trying to show that they both take the two communities seriously.

The priorities of each community are not topped by the Middle Eastern peace process.

The war on terrorism is tied with jobs and the economy for the most important issue to Jewish voters, according to an August poll conducted for the National Jewish Democratic Council. Israel was ranked as the sixth most important issue of those surveyed.

The finding does not indicate apathy toward Israel policy, researchers say, but shows that most Jews do not feel either candidate threatens American support of Israel.

"There's a perception of two strong pro-Israel candidates," said Ira Forman, executive director of the NJDC and co-editor of the book Jews in American Politics.

In a national poll of Jewish voters released Tuesday by the American Jewish Committee, Kerry had 69 percent to Bush's 24 percent with 3 percent backing Ralph Nader. Bush received 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, according to exit polls.

While Bush's rising percentage may encourage some Republicans, many still mistakenly focus on Israel as the top issue for Jews, said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which conducted the NJDC survey.

"They fail to understand that that's not why Jews vote the way they vote," said Greenberg.

Muslim voters also do not rank the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the top of their priority list; polls have shown the reason for that is a belief that neither candidate fully supports Palestinian interests.

The economy, terrorism, national security and health care are the top issues affecting Arab-American voters in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to a September poll of those states by Zogby International for the Arab American Institute.

It's important to note that not all Arab-Americans are Muslims _ many are Christians _ but the Zogby poll did specify that only 3 percent of Muslim voters in those four states support Bush, as opposed to 79 percent who support Kerry.

With their joint support of Kerry, Jews and Muslims are becoming "strange bedfellows" in this election despite their differences over Palestine, said Sulayman Nyang, co-director of the Muslims in the American Public Square project at Georgetown University and a professor of African and Islamic studies at Howard University.

Palestinian rights, said Nyang, is "part of the larger issue of U.S. involvement in the Middle East," which is important to Muslim voters. But he added that the fallout of the Patriot Act and other civil liberties issues at home are of greater concern.

"The question is: What is of immediate influence, what is it that affects us the most at this time? That is survival in America for us," he said.

A Sept. 9 poll by the Muslim Electorates Council of America found that 85 percent of respondents said they planned to vote for Kerry, which is a huge swing from the 78 percent of Muslims who voted for Bush in 2000, according to one poll.

Muslims for Bush co-founder Muhammad Ali Hasan expressed disappointment that many Muslims "are refusing to see the benefits and the good things that are coming out of the foreign policy decisions that President Bush is carrying out."

Hasan, 24, conceded that Bush "has made mistakes on civil liberties," but continued, "He has been very quick to correct them."

Some observers note that whatever the policy differences Muslims and Jews might feel, the two communities share concerns about safety, freedom and terrorism.

"What you have right now is two communities that feel profoundly insecure for somewhat different reasons," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.