Foreign Policy: Seeing an Opening on Israel

GOP Hopes Small Gain in the Jewish Vote Wins Some Close Calls

Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:21am

Normally, foreign policy doesn’t figure too highly in Congressional races, where parochial, or at least domestic, matters dominate. But this year, Republicans are making support for Israel a major issue in several competitive contests in an effort to take Jewish votes away from Democrats — and in the process, gain control of the Senate and stabilize their majority in the House.

Past Republican efforts to attract more Jewish support have not been successful. As the conservative Jewish author Milton Himmelfarb once quipped, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” referring to another dependably Democratic constituency. But GOP operatives believe that unease among Jews over the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel presents a unique opportunity to win a bigger slice of Jewish campaign donations and more of their votes up and down the ballot come November.

The difficulty that Republicans face in winning over Jewish support is underscored by a new study by the Solomon Project, a nonpartisan group focused on American Jewish civic involvement. It found a steady rise in Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates since 1992, with President Barack Obama winning 74 percent of the Jewish vote four years ago and no appreciable pickup in Jewish votes for Republicans. In Congressional elections, the study shows, Democrats have won at least 70 percent of Jewish votes.

Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s first presidential spokesman and now a communications consultant, says that level of support may be just enough to make a difference in a cluster of close races. “If we can win 25 to 30 percent of the Jewish vote, it will be a serious inroad into the Democrat base,” he said. “In critical battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, it’s the difference between winning and losing.”

To help capture that margin, Republicans say tough U.S. sanctions against Iran were forced on Obama by a Congress that is far more sympathetic to Israel than is the White House, and that the president is trying to weaken Israel by reducing missile defense aid to the Jewish state.

Republicans hope such attacks on Obama will have a ripple effect on a number of Congressional races. In Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Connecticut, where GOP pickups of Senate seats would push that chamber toward a Republican majority, the party’s candidates are portraying their Democratic opponents as unreliable defenders of Israel. They cite not only the Democrats’ backing of administration policies but also the party’s past support for relaxing Israel’s blockade of Gaza and their acceptance of endorsements from J Street, a controversial political action committee that some mainstream Jewish organizations have branded as anti-Zionist. Republican candidates are making the claims in House races in New Jersey, Illinois and California.

Democrats reject such accusations, noting that the administration’s fiscal 2013 budget — which seeks to deliver $3.1 billion in total military aid to Israel, a figure proposed after consultations with Israeli defense officials — underscores Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security.

“The Republicans’ claims are false and they’re making them for political purposes,” said former Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, now the head of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

Gop Targets Four Senate Races

As the Republican Party and GOP-affiliated super PACs pour millions of dollars into the states that will decide control of the Senate next year, party strategists see opportunities to sway crucial clusters of votes by attacking the Democratic candidates’ pro-Israel bona fides in four of the dozen races where the GOP has a decent or better chance of picking up a seat.

One of the two true tossups among the quartet is for the open seat in New Mexico, where former Rep. Heather Wilson (R) is facing Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich. The GOP is emphasizing Wilson’s pro-Israel voting record during her decade representing Albuquerque in the House, where she was on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and her credentials as an Air Force officer and member of the National Security Council during the first Bush administration.

By contrast, Republicans noted that Heinrich voted “present” on a November 2009 resolution to condemn a UN report that accused Israeli forces and Palestinian militants of committing war crimes during a major military confrontation earlier that year. The report presented Israel’s action as far more serious. The resolution defined the UN report as “biased and unworthy of further consideration.” Republicans say his vote (21 other lawmakers also voted “present” that day) was tantamount to a vote opposing the language.

The other tossup where Republicans think they can win over the Jewish vote — no matter who wins next month’s GOP primary — is for the open seat Democrats are defending in Wisconsin. (The frontrunners are Tommy Thompson, the former governor and Health and Human Services secretary, and businessman Eric Hovde.) Republicans note that Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Madison’s Congresswoman since 1999, joined 53 other House Democrats in signing a January 2010 letter to Obama urging him to pressure Israel to relax its blockade of Gaza for humanitarian reasons. They also point out that J Street has endorsed her Senate candidacy.

In Ohio, the race has tightened significantly between Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown and state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Marine Corps and Iraq War veteran who’s one of two Jewish GOP Senate nominees this year. (The other is former Gov. Linda Lingle, the underdog for Hawaii’s open seat.) The Ohio race has become ever more competitive as the first-term Senator’s fortunes have become more and more tied to the national political mood — inevitable in a year when his state is going to be one of the most intensely and expensively contested at the national level.

Mandel’s campaign is making every effort to court Ohio’s Democratic-leaning Jewish community, which is concentrated in Cleveland, the candidate’s hometown. His campaign has issued a paper outlining Mandel’s positions on Israel and criticizing Brown’s. It asserts that Jews “have a biblical right to the land of Israel” — a term that encompasses the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to build their own independent state. The document also supports Jewish settlement throughout Jerusalem, including neighborhoods in the Palestinian-dominated eastern half of the city.  

Republicans noted that Brown has accepted an endorsement from J Street, which opposes further Jewish settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Brown’s GOP critics also accuse him of voting to cut aid to Israel when he was a Member of the House in 1997. Brown notes that the cut was to economic aid, which was being phased out at Israel’s behest.

The final race where the GOP is considering making a play for the Jewish vote is in Connecticut, where Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman is retiring after three terms. The nominees won’t be known for sure until primaries in two weeks, but Rep. Christopher Murphy is the solid frontrunner for the Democrats and professional wrestling magnate Linda McMahon appears to have a clear advantage in the Republican race. GOP operatives said Murphy has no glaring anti-Israel votes they can cite and has distanced himself from J Street, declining to accept its endorsement this year. But they said he could be vulnerable on Israel if Christopher Shays, a former Congressman with strong national security credentials and a solid pro-Israel voting record, upsets McMahon in the GOP primary.

Stronger Opinions in House Races

If the Senate races carry the greatest political consequences, a handful of House races provide some of the sharpest contrast between candidates on the issue of Israel.

In the suburbs west of Chicago, outspoken conservative Republican Rep. Joe Walsh is an underdog in his bid for a second term against Democrat Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in combat in Iraq and who later served as the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and as assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration.

In May, Walsh may have hurt his standing among the region’s large, affluent and influential Jewish community by writing an op-ed for the Washington Times — and later introducing a resolution in the House — that supported Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. He proposed limited voting rights for West Bank Palestinians and said any who don’t want to live under Israeli rule should move to neighboring Jordan, which he said was created by the British after World War I to serve as a Palestinian state.

“The two-state solution has failed,” he wrote. “Only a one state solution — a single, undivided Israel — will bring peace, security and prosperity to Israelis and Palestinians alike. It’s time for the United States to lead toward this.”

Even some Republicans suggest Walsh probably went too far, noting that the policies of the United States and Israel both call for Jewish and Palestinian states side by side. As a result, Walsh has attracted little money from pro-Israel PACs. Meanwhile, Duckworth, who supports a two-state solution, is drawing strong Jewish support.

In a dramatically redrawn district taking in some of the New Jersey suburbs closest to Manhattan, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell is a heavy favorite for a ninth term — although Israel will be a source of much of the campaign rhetoric. The Republican challenger is Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi, author and TV host who has made Pascrell’s endorsement of the 2010 Gaza blockade letter a centerpiece of his campaign. “Your participation in this cruel attack on Israel is highly injurious to the Jewish state’s ability to defend itself,” he wrote in June 15 letter to the incumbent.

In a response a week later in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, Pascrell said he did not question Israel’s right to blockade Gaza but sought to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians there. “I am, always have been, and will continue to be a close friend to the State of Israel,” Pascrell said.

Boteach also has highlighted what he calls Pascrell’s “friendship” with Palestinian Imam Mohammad Qatanani, who had been arrested by Israeli authorities as a suspected member of the militant Islamist group Hamas. Steven Emerson, a pro-Israel terrorism expert, has called Pascrell an “Islamic fellow traveler.”

In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties north of Los Angles, Republicans have high hopes for the candidacy of former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who has gained some traction against seven-term Democratic Rep. Lois Capps by raising the issue of her signature on the Gaza blockade letter.