By E.J. Kessler

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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Socking Specter: Rep. Patrick Toomey, the conservative Pennsylvania Republican challenging Senator Arlen Specter in a primary, is criticizing Specter for “poor judgment” and “striking up relationships with some of the world’s worst dictators” in regard to the senator’s dealings with Syria and Iran.

Specter, one of two Jewish Republicans in the Senate, recently tried to arrange for a congressional delegation to visit the Islamic republic, a plan scuttled by the Iranians. “I believe it’s useful to talk to people,” Specter told the Forward at the time. Known for his intense dialogue with Hafez and Bashar Assad, the Syrian Ba’athist strongmen, Specter also had some reservations about the recently passed Syria Accountability Act, although he voted for the measure, which allows the president to sanction Damascus for its support of terrorism.

Toomey apparently is bargaining that hard-line stances will play well in rural Pennsylvania, where one of the planes hijacked on September 11, 2001 crashed to the ground. But the congressman, who has been surging recently in the polls, also may be looking ahead for hawkish Jewish votes in the general election.

“People who are concerned with the security of Israel should be asking, why in the world is someone supporting the regimes of Syria and Iran, which are hostile to Israel,” Toomey told the Forward.

Specter “didn’t want to sign the Syria Accountability Act,” Toomey said. “He’s saying we should reach out to the mullahs of Iran….We should be reaching out to the reformers, not to the mullahs, who are tyrants working against American interests.”

Toomey called Specter’s actions toward the two regimes part of a “pattern,” but declined to characterize Specter’s foreign policy stances more generally.

“I don’t know whether there are strong guiding principles to his foreign policy,” he said, adding, however, that Specter displays “elements of the liberal multinationalism that [John] Kerry is a big advocate of.”

Specter’s spokesman, Bill Reynolds, shot back that “Toomey’s head-in-the-sand approach might work for a congressman from the Lehigh Valley,” but wouldn’t cut it in the Senate. He called Specter “a leader of Middle East diplomacy for 20-plus years” who has been “trusted by prime ministers of Israel to take messages to Palestinians in the course of negotiations.”

“Pat Toomey has no foreign policy initiatives and doesn’t understand foreign policy,” Reynolds said. “He thinks that when you’re meeting with someone, you’re having tea and cookies instead of discussing the serious problems of the time…. The point of the meeting with Bashar Assad was to take him to task for comparing Zionism to Nazism.”

* * *

Mahathir’s Maunderings: The Republican Jewish Coalition is spinning the preference of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad for Kerry as a testimonial to the strong pro-Jewish leadership of President Bush.

After the Malaysian statesman “endorsed” the Democrat, the coalition seized on his words as an opportunity to knock Kerry and laud Bush, who gained Mahathir’s ire for denouncing an antisemitic speech Mahathir made at an October 16 Islamic summit.

“Only a few days after making his detestable statements about the Jewish community, the prime minister was personally scolded by President Bush, who took him aside during an October 21 meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Group to tell the Malaysian prime minister that his remarks were ‘wrong and divisive’ and stood ‘squarely against what I believe,’” according to the coalition’s statement.

The endorsement “has nothing to do with John Kerry. It’s a reflection of Mahathir’s view of George Bush’s strong support of Israel and [Bush’s] strong opposition to global antisemitism,” the coalition’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, told the Forward.

Problem is, Bush’s “strong” leadership on Mahathir was not strong or quick enough for some — including the Senate and some of Bush’s supporters.

Many, including legislators and Jewish communal leaders, were irked that Bush let four days pass before he finally responded to the Malaysian’s odious remarks. They thought that Bush should have responded immediately to Mahathir, who was Malaysia’s head of state at the time, and not leave the denunciations for lower officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who first responded.

The Senate passed a unanimous resolution on October 17 calling on Bush to repudiate Mahathir’s remarks — in effect, pressuring him to take the stand he did.

Mandell Ganchrow, executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and a Bush supporter, while grateful that Bush made the remarks, expressed disappointment with Bush’s delay, telling the Forward at the time that “a day shouldn’t pass” before such antisemitism was answered by the president.

Bush’s slow retort to Mahathir also drew criticism from then-Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean, who told a gathering of Jewish leaders in New York, “You would have had to hold me back!”, days before Bush gave Mahathir his rebuke.

As for Kerry, he “rejects any association with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, an avowed anti-Semite whose views are totally deplorable,” Kerry foreign policy adviser Rand Beers said in a statement. “The world needs leaders who seek to bring people together, not drive them apart with hateful and divisive rhetoric.”

* * *

Brooklyn Babies: Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Republican, and Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, don’t agree on too much.

Schumer was a leader of the Democrats’ efforts to torpedo Bush’s conservative judicial picks, a campaign that bothered the heck out of Coleman, who went to bat for the Bush nominees. They’ve clashed on other issues as well.

But even though they represent different states and parties, the two men have something in common: they both graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, the only two senators representing different states who can claim such a connection, according to another Madison graduate, the chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party in Florida, Mitch Ceasar.

The high school boasts another famous grad in Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Not to mention a few entertainers, school booster Ceasar said.

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