Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Politicking over Israel: Jewish State Becomes Fodder in Congressional War

August 16, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When is asking “is it good for Israel” not so good for Israel? Democrats and Republicans, politicking hard ahead of midterm elections that could end Republican control of the U.S. Congress, are battling over which party was more supportive of Israel in its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“Republicans only offer support to Israel when they think that they’ll get something for it,” Democrats howled after the Republican-led Congress feted Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister who stood with Hezbollah in the recent conflict.

A ranking Democrat “is publicly supporting a terrorist organization,” Republicans barked back after Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) dithered on whether Congress should support Israel in the war.

Jewish leaders have spent years carefully cultivating the bromide that support for Israel is the one bipartisan issue; some tried hard not to wince.

“I do not see the point of constantly testing members of Congress on their Israel bona fides,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton aide and Democratic strategist who was unhappy with both sides for making the war political fodder. “Just for partisan purposes to routinely, constantly test how far you can push members of Congress, I think it’s totally alienating.”

Others said the process was healthy.

“I think it’s a good thing to have members of Congress outdo their colleagues by showing that their pro-Israel credentials are stronger than the next guy’s,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy at United Jewish Communities and a former Republican activist.

“When Israel is in the existential battle for survival that it now finds itself in, having people argue whether they are the best friend of Israel or the bester friend of Israel really shows the parameters of where the vast majority of public officials are in America today,” he said.

At stake is a community that votes in disproportionately high numbers, that breaks ties in swing states like Florida and Ohio, and that has historically favored Democrats in votes and in campaign contributions.

The opening salvo came in the days after the war started on July 12. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, refused to sponsor a resolution affirming the House’s support for Israel in its war against Hezbollah.

Pelosi, who otherwise supported the resolution and instructed her caucus to vote for it, objected to the omission of language calling on both sides to safeguard civilian lives.

The wrangling went on behind closed doors, but Republicans sidestepped congressional niceties by leaking the dispute to Jewish reporters.

That infuriated Democrats, who noted that Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had voiced similar concerns. They were ready the next week when Maliki came to town.

The Iraqi prime minister was to have represented President Bush’s promise of a democratic Iraq emerging from the ashes of civil war — but Jewish lawmakers seized control of the coverage, lambasting Maliki’s refusal to join other Arab leaders in condemning Hezbollah for launching the war.

“His comments condemning Israel were wrong but predictable, but his refusal to condemn Hezbollah is painful,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, the Jewish Democrat from New York.

Republicans fired next, when Dingell, the longest serving member in the House, explained his vote — one of just eight — against the resolution supporting Israel.

“I don’t take sides for or against Hezbollah or for or against Israel,” he said in a TV interview. His next sentence in what was a confused interview was: “I condemn Hezbollah as does everybody else, for the violence.”

The second sentence was left out in Republican releases. The National Republican Congressional Committee accused Dingell of “support for a known terrorist organization.”

Often the digs, which increased in frequency as the war continued, come down to headcounts: Democrats made hay of the fact that Republicans made up 10 of 12 U.S. senators who failed to sign a letter to the European Union urging it to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Just because the guns have fallen silent, doesn’t mean the shouting has stopped.

The Republican Jewish Coalition is launching an ad campaign this week linking Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s loss in the Connecticut primary last week to what it says is receding Democratic support for Israel.

“Joe Lieberman was a voice of support for Israel,” the ad says. “That voice has been silenced by the Democratic Party. America and Israel are worse off for it.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council is urging newspapers not to take the ad, calling the RJC “beyond hypocritical” because of its earlier broadsides against Lieberman, who was the first Jew to make a viable presidential ticket in 2000.

Democrats had no choice but to respond, said Ira Forman, the NJDC executive director.

“When they play this hypocritical gotcha game, we’re stupid unless we respond,” he said. “If you’re going to play that gotcha game, you live by the sword you die by the sword.”

The attacks make political sense for Republicans. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, conducted between July 28 and Aug. 1, found a striking partisan gap in support for Israel: Democrats supported neutrality over alignment with the Jewish state, 54 percent to 39 percent, while Republicans supported alignment with the Jewish state over neutrality, 64 percent to 29 percent.

Forman attributed the results to the GOP’s substantial evangelical base. “If you take evangelical Christians out of the equation, Democrats and Republicans look about the same on Israel,” he said.

Republican Jews say the poll indicates the Democrats are no longer steadfast on Israel’s security.

Noam Neusner, a former Jewish liaison to the current Bush administration, said that although the trend represents an opportunity for his party, it is disquieting for those who want support for Israel to remain bipartisan.

“What concerns me is that the Democratic Party’s rank and file appears to be becoming hostile to Israel’s security needs,” Neusner said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that if anything, the bickering was a comfort to him. He had feared that the war would mean Israel would get sucked into the pre-election for-Bush/against-Bush polarization

“What we’ve seen is the reverse,” Foxman said. “The Democrats who are opposed to the president on 99 percent of things are closing ranks on Israel.”

Recommended from JTA