WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 (JTA) — An online Israel chat hosted by top Democrats in the U.S. Congress outlined sharp differences with the Bush administration and suggested that an aggressive GOP campaign portraying Democrats as cool on the Jewish state has made inroads. Major differences between the parties that arose in the chat with the Democrats’ Israel Working Group included Iraq’s danger to Israel and Syria’s role in peace talks. The willingness to highlight those differences reflects a broader Democratic strategy this election of vigorously confronting President Bush on foreign policy, an area the Democratic Party more or less conceded in the last midterm elections in 2002. But the consistent message relayed last Friday by the six members of Congress on the chat was that the Democrats’ support for Israel is unwavering. “Republicans have recently attempted to put a partisan spin on an issue that has always been able to rise above party lines,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.) said to Gordon from West Bloomfield, Mich., who said he was “uncomfortable with some of the party’s fringes, mainly those who blindly take the Palestinian side in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” Hastings continued, “For Israel’s sake, this issue must continue to receive unwavering support from majorities on both sides of the aisle.” In the weeks before midterm elections that could cost Republicans control of one or both houses of Congress, the Republican Jewish Coalition has blitzed Jewish media with ads focusing on two polls that show that a plurality of Democrats favor neutrality in the Middle East. The ads, which ignore a third poll that shows that a solid majority of Democrats favor Israel, also highlight statements by former President Carter questioning Israel’s moral authority. “The fact that they had to have this call is a testament to the impact our ads have had and underscores the importance of the issues we’ve been raising,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director. Dore from East Northport, N.Y., asked whether the Democrats, “trying to portray yourself as friends of Israel,” would unequivocally say Carter was wrong for describing Israel’s settlement policies as “apartheid” in a forthcoming book. That question drew the biggest gun: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the minority leader poised to become speaker of the House and third in line to the presidency if the Democrats win control of the U.S. House of Representatives. “With all due respect to former President Carter, he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel,” she replied. “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously.” Another sign of how seriously Democrats were taking the RJC onslaught was a Democratic National Committee ad appearing this weekend in Jewish newspapers citing an American Jewish Committee poll that shows that U.S. Jews trust Democrats more on Iraq, Iran and terrorism. Still, doubts crept into the online chat. Gary from Riverdale, N.Y., said “many members of my community, myself included, are afraid of committee chairmanships getting into the wrong hands, i.e. anti-Israel hands, should the Democrats take back the house. Is there truth to the rumors?” That apparently referred to an RJC ad targeting Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), who would chair the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee if the Democrats win. In a television interview during Israel’s war with Hezbollah this summer, Dingell said he favored neither Israel nor Hezbollah, then immediately backtracked, saying he opposed Hezbollah. The RJC ad highlighted only the first part of the quote. “There will be some Democratic chairmen who may not share all my views or have as clear a perspective on Israel as I do,” replied Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), who is Jewish and who would chair the Government Reform Committee in a Democratic-controlled Congress. “But they will not be chairing committees dealing with Israel and the Middle East.” Differences with Republicans were sharpest on how U.S. action in Iraq would affect Israel. Pelosi pointed to the Democrats’ “Real Security” plan, which emphasizes a “significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty” and the “responsible redeployment of U.S. forces” before the end of the year. “The war in Iraq has made both America and Israel less safe,” she said. “Democrats are united in implementing a plan, whereas Republicans want to continue ‘staying the course.’ ” Republicans in recent days have shown greater flexibility in discussing time lines for leaving Iraq, but also say that leaving too soon would endanger Israel — a point made by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in a speech last week to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering in Houston. Nathan from Washington asked whether Democrats would support the Bush administration’s repudiation of some leading Israeli voices calling for an exploration of contacts with Syria. “I would never support removing Syria from the list of state sponsors of terrorism until its policies change dramatically, but that does not mean Israel cannot enter peaceful negotiations with any of its neighbors in the meantime,” answered Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif). “If Israel believes such a process would lead Syria to abandon support for terrorism and instead embrace peace, then I would welcome such a move.” On the Palestinian front, Hastings said, “Democrats will continue to remain active to encourage the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a peaceful two-state solution,” a jibe at the perception — strongly denied by the Bush administration — that it has neglected the peace process. Two questioners berated the Democrats for backing a cutoff in assistance to the Palestinian Authority since the terrorist group Hamas assumed power in March. “We support the right of people to elect the government of their choice,” Sanchez replied. “We do not, however, have to support the government that they choose.” The congresswoman noted that the bulk of U.S. aid went to nongovernmental organizations. There were areas of agreement with the Bush administration, principally on the need to contain Iran’s nuclear program, although Democrats accused Bush of stoking the problem by diverting attention and resources to Iraq. “Israel has become less secure as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah and Hamas have gained popular support for their extremist agendas,” Waxman said. “At the same time, the administration’s conduct has damaged our standing in the world and our ability to be effective in diplomatic efforts.”
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.