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On the Campaign Trail: What Does ‘pro-israel’ Mean? Just Ask Your Local Candidate

October 9, 1996
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ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: What does `pro-Israel’ mean? Just ask your local. candidate

At an elaborate Capitol Hill reception last year, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) heaped praise on then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for making peace with the Palestinians.

Nine days before Rabin’s assassination, Gingrich told hundreds gathered in the Capitol Rotunda for a Jerusalem 3000 celebration that Rabin is a “bold visionary” for agreeing to the Israeli-Palestinian accords that “set the path of peace in motion.”

How fast things change.

As Israelis and Palestinians gathered here last week for an emergency summit to revive a threatened peace process, Gingrich practically condemned Rabin’s peace policies.

More Israelis have died at the hands of Palestinian terrorists in the 30 months since the agreements were worked out in Oslo than in the 30 months before the peace accords, Gingrich said in a conference call with Jewish journalists.

“The dying continues on the part of Israelis,” he said.

Throughout his 17-year career in the House, Gingrich has consistently been placed in the pro-Israel camp by Jewish activists.

But how can the Republicans leader in the House of Representatives go from peace process advocate to critic in less than 12 months and remain a supporter of the Jewish state?

The answer lies in the dramatic shifts of pro-Israel politics in the last few years.

With Election Day less than a month away, seasoned lawmakers and newcomers to national politics are once again grappling with profound changes in the Middle East and what it takes to be pro–Israel — a badge many seek and wear with pride on the campaign trail.

“Candidates are dealing with a completely different Middle East today,” said Michael Bloomfield, political affairs director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

Within a few years’ time, he said, “Scuds have fallen on Tel Aviv and Rabin shook Arafat’s hand.”

Congressional candidates often emphasize their pro-Israel policies as they seek pro-Israel PAC money and support from local Jewish voters.

While much of the attention to pro-Israel policies falls to the congressional races, presidential contenders, in courting Jewish voters, also face the challenge of how to promote themselves as supporters of Israel.

Candidates and activists once measured pro-Israel policies in black and white.

But since the birth of the peace process after the 1991 Gulf War, support for the Jewish state is increasingly monitored in shades of gray.

Complicating the issue for many candidates are the splits in the American Jewish community on many issues facing Israel today.

At the same time, the core definition of pro-Israel activism remains constant: an unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.

When congressional candidates asked the Jewish community in 1990 what it takes to run on a platform supporting Israel, they were told to start by condemning the “international terrorist campaign” sponsored by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

They were also told to oppose arms sales to Arab states because such arms sales were seen as a “disincentive to enter the peace process.”

These suggestions, contained in AIPAC’s 1990 candidate briefing book, have since been replaced by a call from the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby to support arms sales to Jordan and U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinians.

While the peace process has led to increasing confusion and a wider array of issues to grasp, the changes have heightened devotion to the core issues of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Israel is a fellow democracy and the United States’ only reliable ally in the region,” AIPAC’s Bloomfield said. “Most other issues follow from this,” he said, citing U.S. foreign aid to Israel, maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, the quest for peace with security through direct negotiations and no imposed solutions in the peace process.

“The other issues on the agenda are commentary,” he said, referring to the ebb and flow of particulars in the peace process, counterterrorism efforts and U.S. relations with Arab states.

With a few exceptions, candidates in the field generally steer away from controversial issues on the pro-Israel agenda such as the redeployment from Hebron and the possibility of deploying U.S. troops on the Golan Heights if Syria and Israel reach a peace accord.

Instead, most focus on their support for the government of Israel and for foreign aid.

“For seven days there were non-stop front-page stories in newspapers everywhere” about the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East and the summit at the White House, Bloomfield said. But at the height of election season, “almost every candidate shied away from talking about it. Why? It’s too difficult to understand.”

One House candidate from a rural district issued a position paper that confused the Bosnia peace accords with the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, according to a Washington insider who saw the paper but declined to reveal the candidate’s identity.

The would-be congressman called on Israel and the United States to work toward implementation of the “Dayton peace accords.”

So just what are the candidates talking about when it comes to Israel?

The vast majority of candidates issue position papers that include general statements about Israel.

The Democratic candidate for Congress from a suburban Philadelphia district with a large Jewish population issued a one-page paper headlined, “Joe Hoeffel and the Jewish Community.”

In addition to statements denouncing anti-Semitism and maintaining church-state separation, the paper includes a boilerplate endorsement of U.S. foreign aid to Israel, commitment to Israel’s security and support for Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital.

These are all key points of AIPAC’s current briefing book, which the organization distributes to virtually all candidates running for national office.

Hoeffel is challenging Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.), who is the only Jewish member of the 104th Congress’ freshman class.

Other candidates share Hoeffel’s standard pro-Israel line. But this support means different things to different lawmakers, especially those most involved with foreign policy issues.

“American foreign policy should not attempt to persuade Israel to give specifics in the peace process,” said Robert Wexler, who won the Democratic primary in a Florida district widely rated as a safe Democratic House seat.

“Our goal should be to make Israel feel comfortable,” he said, citing his concern over previous pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights.

According to Rudy Boschwitz, a veteran pro-Israel Republican lawmaker running for the Minnesota Senate seat he lost in 1992 to another Jew, Democrat Paul Wellstone, “America should act as a guarantor of Israel’s security.”

“That has not changed and, if anything, it is heightened,” he said, referring to what he called the sea change in Israel’s policies since he last served in Congress.

Activists point to Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) as a prime example of the complexity of what it means to be pro-Israel.

As chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Gilman last year placed a hold on $10 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority to protest Arafat’s government stonewalling an investigation into PLO assets.

In the face of White House protests and calls from former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to release the money, Gilman refused.

“The irony is certainly there,” said Chuck Brooks, executive director of National PAC, the pro–Israel political action committee. “As Clinton met with Arafat with Israel’s blessing, Gilman withheld U.S. money.”

Nonetheless, “it would be a joke to call him anti-Israel for holding this money,” Brooks said. “Gilman’s doing what he thinks is in the interests of the United States and Israel.”

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