George W. Bush or John Kerry? Ariel Sharon will be happy either way.

Whichever candidate clinches the U.S. presidential election, Ariel Sharon wins. George W. Bush (for whatever mix of political and - scary - religious reasons) has basically taken a what-Ariel-wants-Ariel-gets approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And John Kerry isn't about to tick off the influential lobby group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), by allowing much daylight between his position and Bush's. Both men support the construction of the wall running along and into the West Bank (Kerry recently agreed with Bush that the International Court of Justice, which recently ruled the barrier illegal, had no authority to tackle the matter); both say Palestinian refugees do not have the "right of return"; both say Jerusalem must not be divided; and both say that Israel will hold on to some of the land seized in the 1967 War.

Leaving aside questions of conviction, is this politically smart of Kerry? AIPAC finds little to fault Kerry with, but Sharon's policies have been highly divisive among American Jews (who vote Democrat overwhelmingly). Witness the growing membership of groups such Americans for Peace Now (APN), which wants the Israeli government back at the negotiating table. Yet when it comes to U.S. presidential campaigns, as the Nation reports:

"The unwritten rule," says APN president Debrah DeLee, "is don't let anyone get to the right of you on Israel." The math is simple: Jews on the right will vote on the single issue of Israel, but liberal Jews vote on a range of issues. So for political candidates, tacking to the right is all gain, no pain."

Kerry has taken that philosophy to heart, especially after getting in trouble with conservative Jewish groups over some of his statements earlier in the campaign. In October 2003, speaking to members of the Arab American Institute, Kerry, called the infamous wall "a provocative and counterproductive measure," and said, "I know how disheartened Palestinians are by the Israeli government's decision to build a barrier off the 'Green Line,' cutting deeply into Palestinian areas…We do not need another barrier to peace." Kerry's suggestion that former President Jimmy Carter (who criticized the Bush administration for his neglect of the Middle East peace talks in his speech to the Democratic Convention) or former Secretary of State James Baker III -- considered as insufficiently pro-Israel in some Jewish-American circles -- should be sent to the region to restart the peace talks also prompted a backlash. He hasn't made that kind of mistake since.

Kerry, like Bush, has been (rightly) critical of Yasser Arafat, and the Democratic platform talks about "promoting new and responsible leadership" within the Palestinian Authority. The PLO's missteps and its rampant corruption must be acknowledged, but responsible leaders are needed in Israel too.

Precisely because the United States does have a special relationship with Israel, it has a responsibility to criticize those Israeli policies that warrant criticism. The outcome of the deep poverty and daily humiliation that Palestinians of the new ghettos created by Sharon's wall can only yield catastrophic results for Israel's security. Yet Sharon keeps insisting that Israel can somehow seal itself off from suicide bombings, be it via the wall or plans to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The fiction that Sharon perpetuates is that peace can be achieved not by negotiating with the Palestinians, but by acting as if they are not there at all.

It's too bad commitment to Israel in this election season has come to mean little or no criticism at all of Sharon's policies -- which are against Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. interests. Sadly, it looks like this week's Democratic Convention will do little to supply some much-needed constructive criticism.