ECI’s misleading attack on Tammy Baldwin, and J Street’s absurd hyperbole in her defense

As I noted in an earlier post, Israel is becoming an issue in Wisconsin’s fiercely fought Senate race. The Emergency Committee for Israel — well known for its sustained campaign assailing President Obama — is making its biggest ad buy to attack Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tammy Baldwin. With a $500,000 buy, the ad will even air during Packers games!

The ad, however, includes some misleading assertions.

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To be fair, the ad leads off with its strongest point, attacking Baldwin for having "voted against sanctions on Iran" and "calling them ‘heavy-handed’ and ‘misguided.’"

It is indeed true that Baldwin was among a very small number of members of Congress who voted against some major sanctions bills, and she did suggest that the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009 was "heavy-handed" and "misguided." (See her statement here.) She was one of only 12 members of the House who voted against the bill, which received 412 votes in its favor. (Since launching her Senate campaign, Baldwin has voted for other Iran sanctions measures; Politifact Wisconsin called her recent votes in favor of sanctions "a major reversal of position.")

So ECI lands a pretty clean hit on the sanctions issue. But after that, the ECI’s ad departs from the realm of honesty.

First, the ad’s narrator says that Baldwin "accused Israel of war crimes," and the phrase "collective punishment" appears on the screen. This appears to be a reference to a J Street-backed letter to President Obama that she signed along with 53 other members of Congress. The letter called for an easing of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Here’s the relevant passage:

The people of Gaza have suffered enormously since the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt following Hamas’ coup, and particularly following Operation Cast Lead. We also sympathize deeply with the people of southern Israel who have suffered from abhorrent rocket and mortar attacks. We recognize that the Israeli government has imposed restrictions on Gaza out of a legitimate and keenly felt fear of continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups. This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. Truly, fulfilling the needs of civilians in Israel and Gaza are mutually reinforcing goals.

The congressional letter — which was indeed criticized by many supporters of Israel — does not use the phrase "war crimes," and I cannot find any evidence that Baldwin has ever accused Israel of "war crimes." (Presumably, the ad is saying that accusations of "collective punishment" are tantamount to accusations of war crimes, since collective punishment is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.)

Next, the ad says that Baldwin "called terrorists who attacked Israel ‘innocent victims.’" While the ad fails to specify what it is referring to, it appears to be a reference to a statement that Baldwin put out on the Israel’s deadly 2010 boarding of the Mavi Marmara. In the statement, Baldwin said:

I was deeply troubled to learn of the violence and loss of life when six ships delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip were attacked last week. My heart goes out to the many innocent victims. The ongoing violence in the Middle East, and this incident in particular, is of great concern to me and many of my constituents who have called or written to express their anger and sorrow.

Now, those on board the boat were trying to run the Israeli blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, and some did indeed violently attack Israeli commandos boarding their ship. And the flotilla was organized by a Turkish charity that is sympathetic to Hamas, which is of course a group that has regularly engaged in murderous terrorism against Israeli civilians. But were those who were killed aboard the ship all "terrorists"? The video makes it seem as if Baldwin was calling those who committed acts of terrorism against Israel — i.e., attacks against Israeli civilians — "innocent victims." This does not seem to be a fair insinuation. One could be critical of Baldwin’s wording without resorting to distortion.

Finally, the ad concludes: "This year she even attacked the NYPD for monitoring Islamic extremists," and the words "opposed watching extremists" flash on the screen.

But criticism of the New York Police Department’s surveillance program has not centered on its monitoring of extremists. Rather the program’s critics note that the NYPD has cast a wide and seemingly indiscriminate net, cataloguing restaurants patronized by Muslims and monitoring Muslim students groups’ rafting trips, even when there was no reason to suspect extremist activities. And the effort (which has been defended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD) apparently has not yielded much useful information.

So to summarize, Baldwin has indeed been among a very small number of members of Congress to vote against some Iran sanctions bills (though she has since shifted course). But she has not, as the ad alleges, directly accused Israel of "war crimes," called terrorists "innocent victims" or "opposed watching extremists." All those accusations seem like serious stretches.

Baldwin has been defended by ECI’s bete noire, the dovish Israel policy group J Street, which has raised serious money for her. J Street produced its own video responding to ECI’s ad (featuring strangely out-of-context footage of the NYPD from ECI’s ad).

J Street’s video though engages in some wild hyperbole.

To demonstrate Baldwin’s support for Israel, the J Street video notes her votes for aid to Israel and for funding Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system. That’s a reasonable enough retort to suggestions that she is hostile to Israel.

But then the J Street video concludes: "There’s no stronger voice for Israel, or for Middle East peace, in Congress than Tammy Baldwin. Everything else is just politics."

Really? "No stronger voice for Israel"?  That’s absurd.

In truth, Baldwin is not known as a leader on Israel-related issues on Capitol Hill. She does not serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (although she is the co-chair of the Friends of Switzerland Caucus). Sure, she votes for aid to Israel, but so do the vast majority of members of Congress.

J Street tends to endorse and raise money for members of Congress, such as Baldwin, whose voting records may not totally align them with other, more hawkish pro-Israel groups. J Street endorses such lawmakers as part of its stated effort to widen the pro-Israel tent, in the hopes of creating space for members of Congress who take a more dovish or critical line toward Israel. Often these members aren’t really known as leaders on Middle East issues.

J Street may have its reasons for supporting such lawmakers, but that doesn’t make them the strongest voices on Israel.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s Senate candidates have been talking Israel on the campaign trail. Tommy Thompson, the Republican nominee and a former governor, recently accused Baldwin of being "anti-Israel." And Baldwin called Israel "our most important ally and friend in the world." (Baldwin also recounted her first trip to Israel when she was 6 with her Jewish grandfather.)
 

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