WASHINGTON (JTA) – Almost eight years of President Bush have “made matters worse for Israel” – that’s how the Democrats intend to make their case to Jewish voters.
This was the message from the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, in an exclusive interview May 20 with JTA, just hours after her return from Israel. She made clear in the bluntest of terms the Democratic Party’s strategy when it comes to making Israel a campaign issue: Bring it on.
Pelosi said the two pre-eminent topics raised by Israeli leaders during her trip to mark the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary were the twin threats of Iran and Hamas.
“I would say on two of the major concerns – manifestations of concern in Israel – the threat of Hamas and the threat of Iran developing a weapon of mass destruction, that the administration has made matters worse,” she said.
“It was extraordinary that the United States would urge Israel to accept an election in which a terrorist organization would participate,” Pelosi said of the Bush administration’s push for the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, which ended up bringing Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip.
“On the issue of the existential threat of the issue of Iran’s development of weapons of mass destruction, I believe that 7 1/2 years could have been used better to have a more robust diplomacy with sanctions related to economics, to culture – to every aspect of the political relationships as well.”
Republicans hope to peel off traditional Jewish community support for Democrats by pointing out the sharp differences on Iran between the two parties’ likely candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
On May 22, the same day Obama spoke at a Boca Raton synagogue, the Republican Jewish Coalition ran ads in three major Florida newspapers questioning his policies, particularly on Iran.
Obama countenances tough diplomacy, possibly including meetings with Tehran’s leadership, to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
McCain says such meetings undermine U.S. prestige as long as Iran backs terrorism, develops a nuclear weapons program and wishes for Israel’s extinction. Instead, he advocates isolation.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the sole Republican Jewish member of the U.S. House of Representatives and his party’s deputy whip, said Pelosi was “living in another world” if she believed Bush’s policies had harmed Israel.
“There is near unanimity in those who are interested in the U.S.- Israel relationship that this has been the best president Israel has had in the White House,” Cantor told JTA. “I don’t think you hear a foreign policy speech by this White House and this administration that doesn’t mention Iran.”
Most influential pro-Israel organizations in Washington indeed have welcomed the administration’s posture toward Iran and given it high marks for rallying world support for sanctions over the past few years.
However, some senior pro-Israel lobbyists faulted Bush in 2003 for focusing too much on Iraq while neglecting Iran. Other analysts have said the Bush administration squandered an opportunity at that time by ignoring overtures from moderates in the regime in Tehran.
At a news conference after her return from Israel, Pelosi held her tongue when she was asked about Bush’s remarks to the Israeli Knesset regarding the dangers of negotiating with terrorists and radicals. Democrats interpreted the remarks as a thinly veiled attack on their Iran policies.
“We were overseas and did not want to take up what you’re referring to as the president’s appeasement speech,” she told a reporter, referring to a custom – not always observed – of not criticizing U.S. foreign policy while overseas. “But I’ll have something to say for that when we’re in another setting.”
That setting turned out to be an interview with JTA a few minutes later in her Capitol office overlooking the National Mall.
“The fact that in my view President Bush has made matters worse, I think the more the Jewish community hears from our presidential candidates, whether it’s Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, the more confidence I know they will have in the fact that Israel should not make any difference in this election,” she said.
Clinton is running a close second in the race for the Democratic nomination but is seen as having little chance to overtake Obama.
Democrats overall are determined not to let McCain, a war hero, gain the upper hand on security issues, an area they believe their 2004 candidate, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), needlessly ceded to Bush.
As for Israel’s security, they have been especially aggressive in fending off perceived Republican attacks. They also have sought to link McCain to Bush, the most unpopular president in modern polling history.
The Democratic strategy was in evidence last week after Bush, speaking to the Knesset, likened “some” advocates of direct negotiations with radicals to America’s Nazi-era appeasers.
Democrats, led by Obama, piled on. Obama took on Bush’s speech in two successive news conferences and was followed by a phalanx of Democrats who repeated a common refrain: The “Bush-McCain” policies, particularly the Iraq war, had undercut U.S. national security interests.
Pelosi picked up on that theme.
“The challenge we face in Iraq is one of President Bush’s own making, just as Hamas’ participation in the election and his lack of emphasis on the diplomacy needed to stop Iran,” she said. “What we’re talking about is an honorable, safe and responsible redeployment out of Iraq. We cannot sustain our own national security or be there to help our friends if our military strength continues to be eroded in Iraq without any positive consequences.”
Cantor said he was confident McCain, with his reputation as a foreign policy hawk and a moderate on social issues, would take a bite out of the Jewish vote.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the American Jewish community is going to register an unprecedented number of votes for the Republicans and Mr. McCain,” he said, because Jewish voters will balk at Obama’s pledge of direct talks with Iran. “That does put fear in the minds of national security voters, and many in the Jewish community would consider themselves national security voters.”
Pelosi said bipartisan consensus on Israel’s security and the Jewish tendency to identify with the Democrats’ liberal social policies would keep the community voting Democratic.
“The Jewish community votes in large numbers for the Democrats because of our position on Israel and because of our commonality of interests we have on the domestic front, relating to our economy and relating to the education and health of the American people,” she said.
Pelosi, who represents a district in San Francisco, spoke with warmth of her grandchildren who are being raised with Jewish traditions – a son-in-law is Jewish – recalling Purim and Passover festivities with the family.
“This beautiful diversity, they celebrate all the cultural holidays of their mother and their father,” she said. “They take pride in their heritage, as do I.”
Such personal ties run deep. Her father, Thomas D’Alessandro, raised money for Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, she discovered recently, adding another Jewish wrinkle to the biography of a man who was known for his close ties to American Zionists.
This latest trip to Israel, she said, was the most remarkable of her many visits there. Lending poignancy to her appreciation of the state’s strides in 60 years were memorials for the late Tom Lantos, a fellow Bay Area Democratic member of the House and the sole Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, who died in January.
Pelosi also cited her many appearances with Dalia Itzik – both are the first women to serve as parliamentary speakers in their respective countries.
Most moving, however, was the latest of her meetings with the families of Israelis held captive by Hezbollah and Hamas. She held up their dog tags at the news conference and repeated her pledge to make their release a priority.
“It just personalizes and strikes right to the heart of the matter of violence,” she said. “We think of it in the terms of countries, but the fact is the consequences are very personal.”