Candidates in House Race Hone In on Jewish State

In the state's most closely watched congressional contest — the race to fill the open seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak — both candidates have been busy touting their pro-Israel credentials and jockeying for support among Jewish voters.

Unlike the Senate race between Sestak and Pat Toomey, American policy in the Mideast has not emerged as a major point of contention — at least not yet. Instead, Republican Pat Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, and State Rep. Bryan Lentz (D-District 161) have clashed more about the economy and health care.

"Many Jewish Americans are concerned about the primary issues that affect us all, which is the unstable economy and the growing debt," Meehan said in a recent interview.

Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped in Philadelphia last week to raise money for Lentz. As for Meehan, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came in for a "cigar-smoke" fundraiser for him, and some of the candidate's Jewish supporters are working to bring U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to town for an event.

"It's going to be a tough race, and one of the most watched races in the country," said David Landau, who was recently voted in as the first Jewish chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party — and, not surprisingly, is strongly backing Lentz.

Why so much fuss made over the 7th congressional district, which encompasses all of Delaware County, and parts of Montgomery and Chester counties? (Roughly 21,000 Jews live in Delaware County, according to the 2009 "Jewish Population Survey of Greater Philadelphia.")

For one, it remains the only open seat in the state, and as the GOP tries to take back the House of Representatives, all competitive races matter. Second, the professional handicappers are calling it a toss-up. It's currently held by a Democrat, but a Republican held the seat for 20 years before that. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama carried the district in 2008, but Republicans still hold a 10-point edge in registered voters.

Throw in the fact that the two parties feel they've got strong candidates, and both pols have already brought in nearly a combined $3 million.

'Understanding the World'

In May, Meehan visited Israel for the first time, spending three days in the Jewish state with Steven Friedman, a Philadelphia attorney who serves on the national board of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Friedman is also close with Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu; the two attended Cheltenham High School together back in the 1960s, when Netanyahu's father was here teaching at Dropsie College.

Friedman said that Netanyahu wasn't available, though Meehan did meet with other security officials.

Friedman said that the candidate, who spoke at an event hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition earlier this year, realizes that "understanding Israel and its security needs is an understanding of the world and its security needs."

In an essay he wrote after returning, Meehan said: "While many I spoke to expressed hope for a two-state solution to ultimately satisfy Palestinian aims for a homeland, it is perilous to consider Israel as secure without a clear recognition by Palestinians and other Arabs of Israel's right to exist."

Lentz — also a former prosecutor — is a veteran of the Persian Gulf war, and in 1987 was stationed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

He spent six months on the ground as part of Multinational Force and Observers, an independent organization that grew out of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

Lentz said that he's actually "defended" Israel on the ground; he's also spent time there while on leave.

"It was a way to learn about and experience some of the challenges that the Israeli people face," he explained. "You can read about it, but unless you have gone through multiple checkpoints, to come in and out of a country, you don't really understand the security challenges."

Meehan was quick to criticize the president's Middle East policy, particularly his willingness to engage Iran diplomatically, even as Tehran was suppressing dissent after last year's disputed election.

Lentz also made a point to distance himself from some of the harsher rhetoric administration officials have employed against Israel's settlements.

"If you want to be a fair arbiter in a dispute, you can't pretend the parties are equal," he said, referring to the administration's attempts to be viewed as more evenhanded.

"I was there many years ago," continued Lentz, "but I think I have an understanding what it means to be in a constant state of alert and a state of war."



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