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Pa. Senate race turning into Israel proxy fight

The Senate bid of U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is turning into a proxy fight between organizations that support President Obama's Middle East policies and those who oppose them.  (Molly Theobald/AFL-CIO)

The Senate bid of U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is turning into a proxy fight between organizations that support President Obama’s Middle East policies and those who oppose them. (Molly Theobald/AFL-CIO)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A close battle for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat is quickly turning into a proxy war between self-described pro-Israel forces on the left and right.

The immediate fight is over the pro-Israel credentials of U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who knocked off the incumbent Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary and is now facing Republican former congressman Pat Toomey.

The Emergency Committee for Israel, a group recently founded by neoconservatives and evangelical Christians, released a TV ad last week attacking Sestak and questioning whether he understands "Israel is America’s ally." J Street countered this week with an ad defending Sestak and urging viewers to tell him to “keep fighting for peace and security in the Middle East."

Both ads are running in Philadelphia markets and on cable.

For J Street the campaign is turning into a test of whether the organization, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state solution, can break through and insulate candidates from attacks launched by centrist and right-wing segments of the pro-Israel community.

Meanwhile, with neoconservative scion William Kristol calling it the "pro-Israel wing of the pro-Israel community," the Emergency Committee for Israel sees the race as a first step in convincing Jewish voters to break with President Obama’s Middle East policy and candidates who support it. The organization is clearly primed to take shots at candidates like Sestak, 58, who insist their support for Obama, even when he pressures Israel, is pro-Israel.

The race will be closely watched throughout the country: A number of Congress members with known dovish tendencies have declined J Street’s support until now for fear of alienating the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its backers. One prominent example is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a Jewish lawmaker who took J Street’s money in 2008 but is not on their roster of 61 endorsees this year.

In an interview with The New York Jewish Week, Gary Bauer, the evangelical Christian leader and onetime hopeful for the Republican presidential nomination, called Sestak "a perfect example of an elected official running for higher office who uses these rote, throwaway phrases about being pro-Israel, but who has developed a pretty consistent record of associating with organizations and individuals who are anything but."

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s director, acknowledged that the Pennsylvania race is a test for his group.

"There’s no question that this race is a very important test of what kind of support J Street andf its supporters can deliver," he said. "We will show a substantial amount of money can be raised from our political action committee, and that a substaintial amount of money can be raised for a candidate that opposes the right wing on these issues."

Donors thus far have dedicated $100,000 to Sestak’s race through the J Street PAC — a hefty chunk of the $650,000 the organization has raised this cycle.

Ben-Ami, however, qualified that the race is not make or break: The fight this year will be principally fought over bread-and-butter issues like the economy.

"This is not an issue that turns elections," he told JTA.

In fact, in neck-and-neck races such as this one, a lot can turn an election — including Israel issues. In 1992, Specter was a Republican senator in a GOP-unfriendly year when he came from behind to defeat challenger Lynn Yeakel. Among the reasons for Specter’s rally: Yeakel refused to criticize her church for hosting speakers critical of Israel.

Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-area real estate developer who strongly backed Specter in the primary, said that summer’s dog days were too early to make a call in the race. He thought Sestak could be vulnerable, however, in a state where an estimated 300,000 Jews comprise about 2.3 percent of the population.

"I have dear friends I work with in the Jewish community every day who are strongly to the left, strongly identified with the Democratic Party — they are very much opposed to Sestak," said Erlbaum, who is not part of the Emergency Commitee. "While they might not get behind Toomey, they’re more likely to take a pass."

Sestak, naturally, couldn’t look more different in each advertisement.

In the Emergency Committee ad, he is depicted in black and white, appearing aged and pinched. These photos are contrasted with color photos of Hamas militants while the announcer scores Sestak’s appearance at a fund-raiser for the Council on American Islamic Relations in 2007.

The ad noted that the FBI called the group a "front group for Hamas," but the law enforcement agency did not make that determination until 2009. In 2007, while some Jewish activists were urging Sestak not to participate on the grounds that CAIR had alleged ties to terrorist groups and did not condemn terrorism, the FBI had good relations with the organization and used it for outreach to the Muslim community.

In his speech, Sestak spoke with pride in describing Muslim troops in the U.S. military and his own efforts to help plan and oversee joint Israeli-Turkish military exercises. He described himself as a supporter of Jews and Israel, as well as Muslims and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Sestak said CAIR does “important and necessary work,” but also that it was not enough for the group to condemn terrorism — arguing that it had a duty to “condemn the specific acts, and specific individuals and groups by name associated with those acts, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.”

The Emergency Commitee  ad also notes that Sestak signed onto a J Street-backed letter to Obama asking him to pressure Israel to open crossings to the Gaza Strip, calling the Jewish state’s maritime blockade "collective punishment." Israel opened up the crossings last month in the wake of the controversy following its deadly raid on an aid flotilla that aimed to breach the blockade.

The letter, signed by Sestak and 53 other lawmakers, noted Israel’s legitimate security considerations in keeping some materials from entering Gaza.

In response to the ad, the former U.S. Navy admiral told the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia that during joint military exercises with Israel, he had been prepared to "lay my life on the line" for Israel had it been attacked by its enemies during his tour. He predicted that Jewish voters would dismiss the Emergency Committee ad as the effort of a few "right-wing ideologues" who are trying to politicize what should be a nonpartisan issue.

"That people would do this — I don’t think it helps Israel and I don’t think it helps the United States,” Sestak said.

Sestak’s campaign has unsuccessfully attempted to have the Emergency Committee ad pulled, asserting that it is false and misleading. The Emergency Committee is standing by the ad.

The J Street ad highlights Sestak’s career as an admiral, showing multiple shots of Sestak in uniform, and noting that he led an exercise in 2003 that integrated the U.S. and Israeli radar systems.

The ad also notes that Sestak consistently voted for defense assistance to Israel.

Toomey, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2005, voted against the overall foreign aid package from 2001-2003, joining a caucus of conservative Republicans who objected to assistance included for overseas groups that provide abortions. 

"I can’t grasp what Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer are thinking," Ben-Ami said. "Isn’t aid the litmus test of support for Israel in Congress?"

Erlbaum said Toomey, 48, who serves on the boards on a number of conservative advocacy groups, is otherwise seen as having a solid pro-Israel record.

Toomey strongly defended Israel’s actions in the flotilla incident, saying in a statement that "Israel has a legitimate right to self-defense, and it is exercising that right in the waters near Gaza. I refuse to join the ‘blame Israel first’ crowd. America must stand by its ally in our mutual fight against international terrorism."

Erlbaum said, "To those who believe Israel’s existence is vitally important and understand Pat Toomey’s unwavering support, they will vote for Toomey."

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