Stance on Israel an issue in US Senate polls

the pro-Israel credentials of some candidates have also emerged as a key theme in the mid-term elections apart from the issues of economy and high jobless rates.

Powered by automated translation

NEW YORK // Although the troubled US economy and stubbornly high jobless rates are likely to dominate this year's mid-term Congressional elections, the pro-Israel credentials of some candidates have also emerged as a key theme. An ugly battle has erupted in Pennsylvania, where competing interests have fought over the positions on Israel of two Senate hopefuls.

A group called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which includes prominent neoconservative figures such as William Kristol, a commentator and founder of the Weekly Standard political magazine, and Gary Bauer, a politician with close ties to evangelical Christian groups, has emerged on one side of the divide. It ran local television ads attacking Joe Sestak, the Democratic candidate, pointing out that he had signed a letter with 53 other members of Congress accusing Israel of "collective punishment" in Gaza. Pat Toomey, his Republican opponent, has made Mr Sestak's questioning of Israeli policies a key issue.

In response, J Street, the liberal Jewish-American lobbying group, came to Mr Sestak's defence with its own ad, which praised his consistent record in voting for aid to Israel as a congressman in the House of Representatives. Commentators say right-wing groups are starting to raise the issue of Israel to draw Jewish-American voters away from their traditional support for the Democrats. President Barack Obama received 78 per cent of the Jewish-American vote in the 2008 presidential election and he maintained their steady support even as he pressured Israel for a settlement freeze.

Ray Hanania, a Palestinian-American radio talk-show host in Chicago who wrote about the Sestak-Toomey fight in a column for Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper, said the far-right and the conservative Tea Party movement was using support for Israel as a "litmus test" to destabilise otherwise popular candidates. But Mr Hanania said more voters might follow Mr Sestak's lead in examining more closely the policies of the Israeli government. "One crack can destroy a window," he said in a telephone interview. "Unfortunately, too many American politicians are afraid of Israel's shadow."

Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political consultant who is Jewish, was not sure if the right wing would repeat the Pennsylvania battle in other states. "Putting this issue [of support for Israel] in the mainstream is very strange and I find it somewhat offensive and pandering to Jewish voters," he said. "Jewish voters are not one-issue voters and the politician who thinks that is very naive." He said Mr Toomey was vulnerable because of his ties to Wall Street, still deeply unpopular in Main Street America, but was strong among Christian evangelicals "so any information that can be given to firm up their support for him is probably welcome".

Mr Ceisler noted the record of Arlen Specter, a long-time Republican senator who switched to the Democrats before being defeated by Mr Sestak in a primary earlier this year. Mr Specter "was criticised very heavily by members of his own Jewish community for his insistence on dialogue with Iran and his relationship with the Assads in Syria... father and son" but he remained a senator for many years.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for J Street, said the organisation's political action committee was on track to raise more than $1 million (Dh3.67m) to help 61 candidates across the country. JStreetPAC's website said it supported "federal candidates based on their support for Israel and for American policy in the Middle East that promotes security through peace, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and active diplomacy to address regional conflicts".

She said the far-right had made a "ridiculous smear" against Mr Sestak. "It does not make sense if it's really evangelical Christians trying to speak to what they think American Jews fear," she said. She pointed to a J Street poll conducted in March that showed 73 per cent of American Jews supported an active US role in the peace process even if it meant the US were to publicly state its disagreements with both Israelis and the Arabs.

Traditional, knee-jerk support for Israel is being increasingly questioned, at least in intellectual circles, as a recent essay by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books made clear. He urged American Jews to broaden the discussion rather than check "their liberalism at Zionism's door". Mr Hanania, who comes from a prominent Jerusalem family, believes the majority of US voters have supported Israel thanks in part to superior Israeli media management while the "Arabs fumble through on emotion and chance," he wrote in his recent column.

He said he would like to see American Jewry denounce far-right voices who claim to speak in their voice, just as he would also like to see Palestinians reject the opportunistic support of people such as David Duke, a white supremacist and anti-Semite.