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Jewish Leaders Warn Against Using Israel As ‘Wedge’ Issue

On September 19, the Emergency Committee for Israel ran a full-page ad in The New York Times that read: “Tell President Obama: Enough. It’s Time to Stand With Israel.” The ad listed five “steps” that the president might take to prove his pro-Israel mettle, including announcing a plan to visit Israel and reviving a 2008 pledge to fight for an undivided Jerusalem.

While ECI said that its critique of Obama does not extend to the Democratic Party as a whole, the ad has prompted a strong response from Jewish communal leaders, some of whom see it as the latest in a string of right-wing attempts to turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue as the 2012 presidential election draws near. These efforts, they say, stand to threaten the very nature of pro-Israel advocacy in Congress, which has historically been bipartisan.

“I see a very concerted attempt to turn support for Israel into a political wedge issue, and that worries me greatly,” said Doug Bloomfield, former legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “When you turn it into a wedge issue, you undermine that historic consensus.”

ECI is a not-for-profit political advocacy group representing pro-Israel Jewish hawks and their Christian counterparts. It counts three board members who are prominent Republicans: William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; Gary Bauer, an adviser to Ronald Reagan, and activist Rachel Abrams. In the year since its founding, ECI has run ads opposing the congressional candidacies of Democrats Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania and Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio, painting the candidates — who ultimately were defeated — as weak on Israel. Now, the group has turned its attention to the president.

ECI’s New York Times ad drew ire, in part, because its timing coincided with a planned Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, a moment of diplomatic duress for Israel. The American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, issued a press release critiquing the ad as “highly objectionable” given the stakes for the president.

“I have never done this before,” Harris told the Forward. “There have been lots of ads that have appeared over the years. This one really rankled, because I know exactly what we are facing and I know to a large degree what the administration is involved with.”

ECI Executive Director Noah Pollak bristled at the idea that his organization was engaging in partisan politics, saying that the ad was directed at Obama, not at the Democratic Party. “The people who are using Israel as a wedge issue are on the other side,” he said. “We are the ones who are standing up for the Israel-U.S. alliance, and I don’t understand how you could say we are the ones practicing wedge politics.”

Bipartisan support for Israel in Congress remains steadfast, Pollak said, as evidenced by the recent special election in New York’s Congressional District 9, where each candidate tried to out-Israel the other. But where Pollak saw affirmation of the legendary wall-to-wall bipartisan support for Israel, Jewish communal leaders saw signs of serious partisan maneuvering.

In the September 13 election, Democrat David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, was bested by Republican Bob Turner in a political upset that reverberated throughout the country. Turner, a little-known retired cable TV executive, was buoyed by an early endorsement from former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who said voters in Queens and Brooklyn should elect the Republican to “send a message” to Washington that Jewish voters were upset with Obama because of his record on Israel. Turner hammered home this point throughout his campaign, while Weprin asserted his own pro-Israel stance.

Though exit polls showed that only 7% of voters in the heavily Jewish district cast their ballots based on the Israel issue, local Jewish Republicans and national GOP leaders latched on to the election results as evidence that the Republican pro-Israel message resonates with Jewish voters, who have historically gone Democratic in every major election. “Jewish voters are coming to see that Republicans offer real solutions to our economic crisis, are resolute friends of Israel, and represent a way forward to a better future,” Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a press release.

“You can’t blame politicians [for trying] to use whatever they have in order to change their share of the pie,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I think in the end it will be costly to what we call the support of Israel. It would be nice if we could continue to say the one issue [on which] there is bipartisan support is Israel. I think it will become less and less in the next couple of months, and repair itself in the future.”

According to Foxman and others, using Israel as a wedge could mean the end — temporary or otherwise — of Israel’s across-the-board support in Congress, widely seen as one of the most significant bipartisan success stories in contemporary American history.

“If Israel is seen as a partisan wedge issue, then one party can paint the other as anti-Israel when that party is in power, and Israel’s stature will be diminished just by the image of it,” Bloomfield warned. “Israel’s greatest strength is its partnership with the U.S. But if Israel is a partisan issue, then it loses its importance and its clout.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected]

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