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Sharon stirs up governor's race in Florida

Jerusalem Post
August 9, 2002

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tentative plans to visit Florida and headline an Israel solidarity rally in Miami next month have caused a commotion in the state's high-profile race for governor.

Normally a visit by an Israeli leader to the third largest Jewish community in the US would not be viewed as out of the ordinary, but in Florida, the governor's name is Jeb Bush, the brother of President George W. Bush, whose strong support for Israel is arguably Sharon's prized accomplishment.

Bush's leading democratic challenger is former US president Bill Clinton's attorney-general, Janet Reno, who is set to face off against two opponents in the Democratic primary on September 10.

The Prime Minister's Office has asked for a meeting with the governor on September 9, the day before the primary, a spokeswoman for Bush told the Miami Herald.

The newspaper reported on the front page of its local section on Wednesday that Sharon and Bush would share a stage at the solidarity rally.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said Sharon had planned to come to Florida in May to meet with Jewish groups, but the visit was postponed when his trip to the US was cut short by a terrorist attack in Rishon Lezion. While they were certainly aware of the race in Florida, the sources suggested that the timing of the visit was purely coincidental.

But that explanation was not convincing enough for Reno supporters, who criticized Sharon for coming to Florida at the height of a heated campaign.

"I have suspicions because of the timing of Sharon coming during a highly charged political campaign while the governor is the president's brother," Florida democratic state representative Nan Rich told The Jerusalem Post.

"I think it's inappropriate for the prime minister of Israel to interject and choose sides at this point in the campaign, if that's what he's doing. It's just a little too much of a coincidence."

Rich, a strong supporter of Reno who has known her for decades, called upon Sharon to meet with all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates. However, she said she does not believe Sharon will ultimately impact on the race, which has been focused on a number of local issues.

A former president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Rich said she expects Reno to get a hefty percentage of the democratic Jewish vote. After campaigning with Reno in retirement communities, Rich expressed confidence in her support among Jewish seniors.

Israeli political sources said Sharon should be especially careful to avoid any impression of intervening in an American campaign, especially since the administration of the governor's father, former US president George Bush, was accused of helping sway the 1992 Israeli election in favor of Yitzhak Rabin by withholding crucial loan guarantees.

"It just so happens that this is an election year, but for a prime minister visiting Miami and visiting Florida, meeting with a governor is just a matter of protocol," Israeli Consul-General in Miami Miki Arbel told the Miami Herald. "We want to be far away from any intervention in any election, locally or nationwide."

Reno made headlines around the world last month when she hosted a glitzy Miami Beach dance party and again last week when her campaign announced that singer Elton John would perform on her behalf in a September 18 fund-raiser. Besides John, Reno's celebrity supporters include former talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell and actor Martin Sheen, who plays the president on the American television show The West Wing.

Asked whether Sharon would be invited to one of Reno's dance parties while he is in Florida, her campaign spokeswoman said, "The greatest thing about Janet's parties is that they are open to everyone."