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Candidates try to `cool it' on Mideast, but politics may heat up the rhetoric. BUSH AND DUKAKIS

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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.

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