Pro-Israel money will help give Joe Lieberman the ability to run a serious race if he sticks with his vow to make an independent bid to keep his Senate seat, according to political insiders and some pro-Israel donors themselves.
This support, they said, will counterbalance the evaporation of political backing Lieberman will now likely experience from his Democratic Party colleagues with the victory Tuesday of his primary opponent in Connecticut, Ned Lamont.
“I think the pro-Israel political action committees, and even more so, pro-Israel individuals will give their money to Lieberman,” said Steven Rabinowitz, a Democratic campaign consultant specializing in the Jewish community who is backing Lieberman’s independent bid. “They’ll raise a lot of money, which will enable him to run an independent campaign. If he gets out, it won’t be because he can’t raise the money.”
Jack Bendheim, a pro-Israel activist who supported Lieberman financially in the primary agreed, saying, “I think he’ll have the resources he needs.”
Whether or not that makes Israel a more prominent issue in the general election than it was in the primary campaign Lieberman lost Tuesday will depend on the positions taken by his opponent, Ned Lamont, as the general campaign develops, they said.
During the primary campaign, Lamont attacked Lieberman relentlessly for his unstinting support of the war in Iraq. But Lamont also voiced his support for Israel, and for its controversial military campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah in particular.
Still, some noted with concern Lamont’s decision to give his late-night victory speech Tuesday flanked by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Jesse Jackson, who are viewed in some sectors of the community as unfriendly to Israel.
“I think that was a poignant picture that tingled down everyone’s spine,” said David Baram, president of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut. “Seeing that array of supporters, for some of us who know how these individuals see Israel, it’s of grave concern to us.”
Baram, a former mayor of Bloomfield, Conn., and chairman of the town’s Democratic Party committee, also voiced concern about Lamont’s call in his victory speech for greater “respect” for the views of U.S. allies in shaping American foreign policy “as opposed to exercising American leadership.” Given the international community’s “belligerence” towards Israel, this was worrying, he said.
Rabinowitz termed Lamont’s victory pose with Sharpton, Jackson and Waters “unfortunate” but said, “They’re hardly the defining backers in his race.”
Mark Silk, executive director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said the effect on Connecticut Jewish voters would be minimal. “I can imagine some Jewish voters twitched a bit to see the Lamont campaign with Jesse and Sharpton. But Connecticut voters are pretty sophisticated. They understand an endorsement doesn’t matter that much,” said Silk.
Even Baram admitted a significant portion of the Jewish community — particularly younger voters — appeared to have opted for Lamont, in no small part on the strength of his stand against the Bush administration on the war in Iraq.
In this respect, the pro-Israel money that went, and appears ready again, to go with Lieberman, may be diverging from actual Jewish voters in Connecticut.
Lamont, a wealthy software executive and political novice, defeated the three-term Lieberman in what was initially expected to be only a nominal primary race of the sort most incumbents win in a walk. Lieberman enjoyed support from the labor movement, the pro-abortion rights movement, environmentalists and most of the other interest groups that make up the Democratic coalition.
But with the fierce initial backing of bloggers from the Internet, followed by defections from Lieberman’s camp of key Connecticut party leaders and public opinion shapers, Lamont fanned flames of discontent with the incumbent’s stand on Iraq and other issues into an upset victory. The final tally — 52 percent for Lamont, 48 percent for Lieberman — was close. But it was not insubstantial. Even Lieberman’s backers in the Jewish community acknowledged it reflected genuine dissatisfaction among Connecticut Democratic voters with Lieberman’s backing of Republican President George Bush on a number of issues.
In the election’s immediate aftermath, there were no data available on how Jews voted. But even Lieberman backers said a significant portion of the community appeared to have gone for Lamont despite Lieberman’s iconic standing as the first Jew to ever run on a national ticket.
It was not just Iraq, many said. Several community leaders and analysts noted Lieberman’s support last summer for congressional legislation to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, the long-comatose Florida woman whom doctors judged to be in a vegetative mental state after suffering a heart attack years earlier. Bush and activists on the Christian right got Congress to pass a law requiring the federal courts to review her husband’s decision, acting as her surrogate, to disconnect her from life support, and possibly stop him from doing so. After reviewing the medical evidence, the courts declined.
“I’d say church-state issues are a very high motivating factor, if not on a conscious then on an unconscious level” when Jews step into a voting booth these days, said Ethan Felson, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Connecticut.
One Jewish community activist who would speak only on condition of anonymity because his position required him to remain politically nonpartisan said: “Jews were freaked out with where Joe was on Terri Schiavo. That’s not even where the fringe of community is in terms of Jewish law.”
Silk recalled Lieberman’s campaign for the vice presidency in 2000 as the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket. For all the pride he sparked among Jews, noted Silk, Lieberman also provoked a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League for his repeated invocation of his religiosity on the campaign stump.
In this political period, Jews are increasingly concerned about the rise of the religious right to power in the GOP, and Bush’s identification with their cause, said Silk. Meanwhile, Lieberman stressed his bipartisan relationships with Bush, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Karl Rove, who are all central figures in this concern.
“He never made any kind of statement about keeping boundaries clear between church and state,” said Silk, whose center specializes in the study of politics and religion. “He’s a guy who has never made those distinctions, and the Schiavo vote was a case in point. New Englanders in general thought, you just don’t do that. But Lieberman did. There was just a sense he was out of step with his own constituency, including his Jewish constituency.”
Said Silk: “I’ve always argued that if you want to know why Jews have not gone more toward the Republicans, you have to look at the extent to which the Christian right has become active there. And when Christians get on the march, Jews run the other way.”
Of course, Lamont was not running against Bush but against a Democrat who, for all his stress on bipartisanship, could rightly claim he voted with his party 80 to 90 percent of the time.But sociology professor Arnold Deshefsky, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies, said, “Probably more than anything else, the contest between these two was a referendum on Bush’s policies. Democrats in Connecticut are very unhappy with his policies. And since that can’t have an election with Bush, they chose someone who they perceived to be a stand-in for the president. This was a way of sending a message to Bush and his supporters.” It was not just Iraq, many said. Several community leaders and analysts noted Lieberman’s support last summer for Congressional legislation to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, the long-comatose Florida woman whom doctors judged to be in a vegetative mental state after suffering a heart attack years earlier. Bush and activists on the Christian right got Congress to pass a law requiring the federal courts to review her husband’s decision, acting as her surrogate, to disconnect her from life support, and possibly stop him from doing so. After reviewing the medical evidence, the courts declined.