Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa) and Likud Knesset member and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky took part in a talk on "Religious Freedom, Democracy and the Middle East" in the auditorium of the Main Line private school. The event was organized by the Middle East Forum and moderated by the think tank's director, Daniel Pipes. More than 400 people attended.
On the surface, both of these Israel-related gatherings steered clear of domestic politics, focusing strictly on global affairs.
But early in the evening, Santorum - first elected to the Senate in 1994 - did have some mild criticism for close ally and supporter President George W. Bush.
"The president describes it [the Islamist situation] as a war on terrorism, but terrorism is a tactic," he said. "It's like FDR saying we are making a war on Blitzkrieg. What we are fighting is Islamic fascists."
Like Bush, Santorum has of late been having a difficult time in the polls. The latest Quinipiac University Poll has Santorum trailing his Democratic challenger, State Treasurer Bob Casey, by 18 percentage points, with 12 percent undecided. That number is up from a 13 point deficit from a similar poll released on May 11.
Are such events designed to boost poll numbers and possible fiscal contributions, especially from the Jewish community?
"Look, we are in an election year. It is almost impossible to separate the so-called nonpolitical events from the political ones," replied Terry G. Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
"Is there a political component? Of course," said Madonna, who's written extensively about Santorum's political career. But "that doesn't mean that he's not sincere in his beliefs" about and support for Israel. "If you look at his career, I think he is sincere."
Madonna said that he considers Santorum to be an "evangelical Catholic," meaning that he is a practicing Roman Catholic but shares the worldview of certain evangelical Christians, including a strongly held belief in the importance of Jewish rule over the Holy Land.
Much of the discussion at the event focused on what Israel's options are in the face of continued Palestinian rocket fire coming from the Gaza Strip, in addition to the seeming onset of anarchy in Palestinian society.
"Palestinians don't want to continue living in refugee camps," stated Sharansky, who is often painted as a pessimist when it comes to the prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Sharansky opposed the Oslo peace accords, and resigned from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government in protest over the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
"Our realities are not Abu Mazen [the nickname for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] or Hamas, but those Palestinians who want normal lives," he added.
The situation has since escalated. On June 25, Palestinians launched a raid near Gaza, killing two Israeli soldiers and kidnapping a third. Israel has threatened a military assault if the man is harmed, overshadowing efforts by Abbas to get the Hamas-led government to recognize Israel.
Santorum was also asked by Pipes what he thinks of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposed "realignment plan," which calls for ceding parts of the West Bank to Palestinian control.
"I have my own opinions on what Israel should and shouldn't do," he replied. "I have my own opinions on what the British and French should do as well. I try not to impose those opinions on our allies. They get enough criticism."