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Analysis: Latimer expects to beat Bowman in this week’s primary, but not because of Israel

Westchester County Executive George Latimer says the race is more than a conflict over the Middle East

If George Latimer, the popular Westchester County executive, beats Rep. Jamaal Bowman in New York’s Democratic primary Tuesday, pro-Israel organizations will undoubtedly take credit. Considering Bowman’s staunch criticism of Israel and his diatribes against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its support of Latimer, the analysis makes sense.

But Latimer doesn’t much like it.

The contest, he told me, transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the ongoing nine-month war in Gaza. 

“I don’t think that every member of Congress is a secretary of state,” Latimer said in a recent interview, in response to a question about President Joe Biden’s ceasefire proposal.

“It is foolish for every single elected official to constantly have comments about everything. I’m going to trust at this point that Joe Biden and Antony Blinken are working to try to get whatever the next best short-term and mid-term solutions for this are.”

Latimer attributed his campaign’s strength to a compelling message about voters’ economic worries and his alignment with mainstream Democratic views. He contrasts that with what he calls Bowman’s more radical positions on the economy and public safety. But this campaign has focused relentlessly on the Middle East.

Democratic party split on Israel

Bowman has criticized Israel relentlessly during the primary, as well as AIPAC’s super PAC, the United Democracy Project. The PAC has spent $14.6 million on New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes much of Southern Westchester County and a portion of the Bronx. On the campaign trail, Bowman has used profane slogans to rally his progressive base.

If Bowman loses on Tuesday, it will highlight the split within the Democratic party over the U.S.-Israel alliance — and the perils of trying to question it. A Bowman loss would be the first defeat of a “Squad” member since the 2018 election.

Still, Latimer can’t totally ignore the outsized role Israel has played in this race.

“The concept that you have to be anti-Israel to be progressive is a fallacy,” Latimer said. “If I win this race, it will send a strong statement that when we get lost in ideological extremes, we run the risk of losing; that people who believe that it’s trendy to attack Israel are failing.” 

What Bowman polls show 

Bowman, 48, faced electoral challenges even before Latimer entered the race in December and both sides launched aggressive television, radio and online campaigns. An internal poll from the Latimer campaign in January showed the two-term congressman with a 49% favorability rating. Bowman, a middle-school principal in the Bronx before he ran for office, has had a strained relationship with some Jewish leaders in his deep-blue district since he ousted longtime Jewish Congressman Eliot Engel, a staunch supporter of Israel, in 2020. Bowman said in an interview following his victory that, as part of his foreign policy platform, he would be “more involved” in advocating for the humanitarian needs of Palestinians.

In his first term, Bowman drew backlash for criticizing Israel for not distributing vaccines to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and for supporting a bill that would regulate U.S. military assistance to Israel. He also angered his far-left allies by traveling to Israel and took heat from local Democrats for opposing Biden’s signature infrastructure bill. But at the time, he made a point of reaching out and explaining his moves and his stances on the conflict. It earned him a letter of appreciation from a group of Bronx and Westchester County rabbis and activists.

In some instances, Bowman diverged from his Squad colleagues. He voted in favor of the replenishment of Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome defense system in 2021, and expressed his opposition to the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement. 

Bowman narrowly won his first reelection bid in the Democratic primary with 54% of the vote against two rivals. 

Bowman on Israel-Hamas war

In his second term, Bowman further frustrated Israel supporters when he opposed a resolution commemorating the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding, voted against a bill to bolster the Abraham Accords, and was one of seven House members who boycotted Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s speech to Congress in July.

His sustained criticism of Israel intensified after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Bowman issued a strong condemnation of the terrorist group and denounced local progressive activists who celebrated the attacks. But he also joined several colleagues to call for an immediate ceasefire, accused the Jewish state of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing in its military campaign in Gaza, and introduced at a panel discussion the controversial anti-Israel scholar Norman Finkelstein, who has accused Jews of exploiting the Holocaust to legitimize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The rhetoric led J Street, the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby, to rescind its endorsement of Bowman.

Following the entry of Latimer, Westchester’s popular two-term county executive, Bowman directed his attacks on AIPAC, accusing his opponent of being controlled by “right-wing Republicans who want to destroy our democracy.” In recent days, he intensified this rhetoric, claiming to be targeted “by the Zionist regime we call AIPAC” for his stance on the war in Gaza.

A poll conducted by the Democratic Majority for Israel in April showed Bowman trailing his primary challenger by 17 points. A recent survey by Emerson College and Pix11 gave Bowman 35% of the vote.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries endorsed Bowman in March, but hasn’t offered any assistance in a public way. In 2020, after his victory over Engel, Jeffries said he was hopeful Bowman would be a pro-Israel member of Congress.

In an interview last week, Jeffries demurred when asked if he disavows Bowman’s statements on Israel, but said he “strongly” disagrees with Bowman on the issue and “will continue to make my position clear internally to my colleagues.”

Latimer vs. Bowman 

Latimer initially refrained from personal attacks against the Democratic incumbent. In his previous races for county executive, Westchester County legislature and the state legislature — he prevailed in them all — Latimer said he hardly acknowledged his rivals. He suggested that Bowman’s attacks on him, by contrast, and his increasingly anti-Israel stance, reveal his desperation.

“If Jamal had a strong enough record and polled well going into this race, he would have needed to say nothing about me,” Latimer said in the interview. “But he chose not to do that. He turned my support from AIPAC into some sort of vilification process. He is probably surprised by the pushback, by my strength and that I have allies backing me.”

Latimer said Bowman supporters have been protesting him and trying to agitate him in public settings, limiting his interaction with voters. 

“My steadfast support for Israel predates this campaign,” he added.

Beyond AIPAC

The Democratic Majority for Israel, which spent more than $2 million against Bowman in 2020, spent about $1 million this election cycle,  and focused more on opposition research. It also reached out to Black and Hispanic voters, highlighting Bowman’s differences with Biden. 

Latimer said that if elected to Congress, he would align himself with colleagues who have demonstrated a strong commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance and stand up against terrorism, but won’t give Israel a “blank check.” 

Reflecting on his relationship with the Jewish community, Latimer said it dates back to his first campaign for the Rye City Council in 1987. He later handled media relations for the Community Synagogue of Rye, and in his current position worked closely with local synagogues and the Westchester Jewish Council on various initiatives to highlight Jewish heritage and counter antisemitism and hate.

He mocked Bowman for hosting a “healing breakfast” for Jewish constituents in November to discuss the rise of antisemitism. 

“We have ongoing interfaith dialog between the Jewish community and other communities all the time,” he said. “We don’t wait until something goes wrong, and then we rush out to embrace the community that we basically insulted.”

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