J Street, the pro-peace process political action committee and lobby, already had a lot on the line in Pennsylvania’s hotly contested Senate race, where it has bet heavily on Democratic nominee Rep. Joe Sestak.
But the ante was raised this week with the creation of a new group including Republican heavy hitters William Kristol and Gary Bauer that launched with hard-hitting television ads accusing Sestak of being hostile to Israel.
Sestak, who beat Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary in May, is “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,” Bauer told The Jewish Week in an interview Tuesday.
To get that message across, the new Emergency Committee for Israel is already running attack ads blasting Sestak for signing a congressional letter critical of Israel’s Gaza blockade. (J Street supported the letter.)
Is J Street one of those anti-Israel groups?
Bauer didn’t answer the question directly, but he left little doubt where he comes down: “You have to take a group and look at what it does,” he said. “In my view, you have to come up with a pretty bizarre definition of ‘pro-Israel’ to fit J Street into that category.”
J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, disagrees — both with the new Emergency Committee’s assessment of Sestak’s pro-Israel bona fides and with its views on his own group.
“JStreetPAC is proud to support Congressman Joe Sestak, who has been a stalwart supporter of Israel,” he said. “The choice in Pennsylvania is clear: a candidate from the far right who has opposed aid to Israel and is supported by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, or a former naval Commander who supports Israel and whose values line up with the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans.”
Other observers say the new organization, with an overwhelmingly Republican cast of characters and a strongly anti-Obama focus, is just a continuation of the longstanding and largely unsuccessful GOP effort to woo Jewish voters and a somewhat more successful effort to get pro-Israel campaign money.
And the group could represent a challenge to AIPAC, the lead pro-Israel lobby that Jewish doves say is an arch defender of the Israeli right — but which many on the right believe is far too cozy with the Democratic administration.
For J Street, the Pennsylvania race is shaping up as a critical test of its contention that it can provide political “cover” to pro-Israel politicians who want to see a more robust U.S. approach to Middle East peace.
“There’s no question people are looking at Pennsylvania, but we’re going all out for all the candidates our PAC is supporting,” Ben-Ami said. “This is a very important year for our entire effort — and not just institutionally, but for the peace process and for President Obama’s foreign policy.”
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J Street chose the Pennsylvania race, in part, because former Rep. Pat Toomey, the Republican nominee, is running an aggressive campaign aimed at Jewish voters and — possibly more importantly — campaign donors who don’t care about his very conservative domestic record.
With less than five months to the November election, the race is already getting nasty, with Republicans — and the new committee — blasting Sestak for appearing at a fundraiser for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group they say has terrorist links, and the Democrats hitting Toomey for voting twice against foreign aid, traditionally a benchmark vote for the pro-Israel lobby.
And the risks for J Street are growing.
“J Street appears to have decided that the Sestak-Toomey race is the place to try to demonstrate its political muscle,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn, who said the risks are obvious: “Should Toomey carry a sizable proportion of the Jewish vote, that will be interpreted by many in the Jewish community as indicative of the inability of J Street to deliver.”
Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel said the new group is more about partisan politics in today’s highly polarized environment than anything else — and that the effort to use Israel as a wedge issue with Jewish voters probably won’t work any better than it did in 2008.
“This kind of crude appeal — that if you label candidates anti-Israel, Jews will vote against them — just hasn’t worked,” he said. “Jewish voters are much too sophisticated for that.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, director of Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization, said Jewish voters may actually be beside the point.
“What this might be about is an effort to rally the disparate elements and wayward elements within the Republican Party around an issue on which they are generally in accord: Israel,” he said.
Increasingly, social conservatives like Bauer, old-line economic conservatives, hawkish neoconservatives and the wild card in the mix — the Tea Party movement — are pulling the GOP in different directions. The new committee, with Christian conservative Gary Bauer and neoconservative Bill Kristol at the helm, may be, at least in part, an effort to focus those elements on a single issue where there is plenty of common ground, he said.
Still others see the Emergency Committee as a not-so-subtle jab at AIPAC and other elements of the pro-Israel lobby — an impression reinforced by Kristol in an interview with Politico’s Ben Smith, who broke the story on Monday. Kristol said, “There are some who say they’re pro-Israel but aren’t really … then there’s AIPAC, which is a wonderful organization, but one that’s very committed to working with the administration, so they pull some punches publicly.”
Committee board member Gary Bauer denied that the new group is mostly about J Street and GOP politics, arguing that it “is an attempt to deal with the growing threats that Israel faces, and the growing strain between our current government and our alliance with Israel.”