Parties Joust Over Merits of an Issue

Increasingly gloomy Election Day forecasts have been projected for House GOP members in the upcoming midterm elections. Fully aware of these negative projections, U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-District 8) has begun working to avoid becoming a casualty of the national disaffection over the handling of the war in Iraq.

He's utilized a number of tactics to go after his challenger, Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy — one of them being to reach out to Jewish voters and try to portray himself as a fervent supporter of Israel, particularly when it comes to the threat posed by Iran.

On Oct. 4, Fitzpatrick held a press conference on the front steps of the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, where he declared his staunch support for Israel's right to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, a position he claimed differed from his opponent's.

Murphy actually attended Fitzpatrick's event, and told reporters afterward that his position was misrepresented.

Rabbi Ira Budow, the head of school at Abrams, also noted that the Fitzpatrick campaign paid the school to hold a press conference on its grounds, and that Democrats were free to do so as well.

Fitzpatrick claimed that this was not a theoretical question, but a real campaign issue, one that could come before the next Congress, especially if Iran acquires the bomb — or appears on the verge of doing so.

"My support for Israel's right to take a pre-emptive measure — sure, it's an important issue.

"It's a last resort, but [it's] a basic right of any nation," said Fitzpatrick, who was reached on his cell phone shortly after the event.

The candidate is also scheduled to appear at Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington on Oct. 13, and at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown, where he will no doubt tout his pro-Israel credentials.

Murphy said that when it comes to Israel, there are no differences between the two candidates, but that a wide gulf exists when it comes to their approaches on Iraq — which has topped most polls as this year's pivotal election issue — as well as the war on terror.

'Not a Partisan Issue'
"Israel has an absolute right and obligation to defend itself," said Murphy. "Fitzpatrick is trying to destroy my record and play politics with the State of Israel. The security of Israel is not a partisan issue."

The two candidates essentially engaged in the latest round of a debate that has been going on at least since 1985 ,with the founding of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has long argued that the GOP is by far the more favorable party toward Israel.

The debate raises what is perhaps an unanswerable question: Is the relationship between the United States and Israel better served if the issue is treated as a subject above the fray? Or does the pro-Israel community win only when both parties are actively competing for Jewish votes based on their records and positions on Israel, thus ensuring a bipartisan commitment to the Jewish state?

The Democratic Party generally argues that when it comes to Israel, there's no significant difference between the parties, and voters should choose candidates based on other issues.

On the other hand, the Republican Party argues that congressional members and senators make a difference when it comes to Middle East policy; and at a time when Israel is threatened by Iran, as well as terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, it's perfectly legitimate for candidates to differentiate themselves when it comes to Israel.

Whether such strategies are good for the Jewish community or Israel or not, the question of which candidate will be better for Israel repeatedly crops up, particularly when it comes to soliciting Jewish donors.

Another embattled incumbent, U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-District 7) went on the offensive last month when he charged that his Democratic opponent, retired vice admiral Joe Sestak, had accepted money from a political-action committee supposedly run by an anti-Israel activist, and had held a fundraiser with Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the United Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. Edgar has been consistently critical of Israeli policies.

Sestak's campaign called the former issue a "non-story," and said that Edgar's position on Israel didn't come up during an event geared toward domestic concerns.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Liebermann, who is trying to retain his seat running as an independent, has also injected Israel into his campaign and appealed to pro-Israel supporters to try to help him beat Democratic nominee Ned Lamont, as well as the Republican candidate.

And, of course, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has sought the assistance of the pro-Israel community in his re-election bid, while many Jewish supporters of his opponent Bob Casey have said the Democratic candidate will be every bit as strong on Israel as Santorum.

"I've watched, particularly for the last 15 years, Republican candidates and Republican organizations make unfortunate and inappropriate use of positions in one campaign cycle after another," said Mark Aronchick, chair of the Pennsylvania National Democratic Committee, who is also a close advisor to several candidates including Bob Casey, Joe Sestak and Lois Murphy.

"I've asked all my friends and the other campaigns to refrain from trying to use Israel as a wedge issue," continued Aronchick. "On the congressional races, the Jewish community should be thrilled if Joe Sestak winds up winning that race; here's a guy who understands the issues from a diplomatic and military perspective. And Pat Murphy was in the gulf, he understands what the fight was all about."

Since Labor Day, the Washington D.C.-based Republican Jewish Coalition has blanketed Jewish publications nationwide with advertising that claims that critics of Israel, such as former President Jimmy Carter and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, now represent mainstream Democrats.

"The Democrats are being disingenuous, at best, when they accuse us of playing politics with the issue," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "It's a legitimate issue because Israel was just attacked by the radical terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and we've got a very dangerous situation with Iran. The challenges that Israel faces are real life-and-death issues."

Brooks added that a July poll sponsored by NBC news and The Wall Street Journal found that 84 percent of Republicans supported Israel; for Democrats, that number dropped to 43.

"The Democrats should focus their efforts on trying to fix the root causes of why support for Israel in the party is eroding," added Brooks.

Of course, the majority of Jews aren't single-issue voters, and it may be difficult for incumbents to turn the election into anything other than a referendum on Iraq and President George W. Bush.

In the latest Keystone Poll, 24 percent of statewide voters surveyed said Iraq will be their top priority on Nov. 7, edging out terrorism and the economy by several percentage points.

In The Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday, 54 percent of respondents said they trusted the Democrats to do a better job in Iraq, a stark reversal from 2004.

Sestak and Patrick Murphy have tried to link Republican incumbents to the President's Iraq policy while pushing their own plans to set a timetable for troop withdrawal. Weldon and Fitzpatrick have, in turn, pointed out when they have disagreed with or criticized Bush, but have said that timetables only embolden Iraqi extremists.

Half of those surveyed in the Post poll that said they'd like to see troop levels decrease, and a fifth backed an immediate withdrawal.

"As long as the focus is on the war, it helps the Democrats," said G. Terry Madonna, who runs the Keystone Poll, and directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. "We wouldn't be having these conversations about Weldon and Fitzpatrick if it weren't for the war." 



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