[Jon Ossoff, the Georgia congressional candidate who Democrats are hoping will give President Trump a black eye, may also deliver a victory to the dovish side of the pro-Israel camp.
Ossoff is a supporter of the left-leaning lobby J Street and has received $56,000 through the group’s political action committee in the run-up to Tuesday’s elections.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old former Capitol Hill staffer, came out first in the April 18 special elections to fill the seat of Georgia Rep. Tom Price, who resigned to join the Trump cabinet. He now faces a runoff election that is expected to draw even more out-of-state attention and money, with Democrats trying to frame the race as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.
Issues relating to Israel and the Middle East did not come up during the congressional race, and Ossoff, who is Jewish, did not deal much with foreign policy questions throughout his highly watched campaign. But Ossoff has clearly sided with the left wing of the pro-Israel community: He received an endorsement from J Street, which called on its supporters to donate to the campaign of the young Democrat, described by the lobby’s PAC as “a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship” and as a candidate who “believes the U.S. should play a leading role in efforts to secure a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians through a negotiated two-state solution.”
The endorsement, issued in mid-March, brought in $56,000 in donations to Ossoff’s campaign through J Street’s PAC. Last month, according to a spokeswoman for the lobby, Ossoff attended a meeting of J Street’s Atlanta chapter and spoke briefly at the event, telling participants he was excited to work as a candidate with the group that he had first encountered as a congressional staffer.
While not an issue on his campaign, Israel and foreign policy are close to Ossoff’s heart. Most of his political experience came as a congressional aide, where he was in charge of foreign policy issues in the office of Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson. As such, he worked on legislation improving military funding for Israel and mandating tougher inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities.
Ossoff left Congress before the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, a key issue dividing the pro-Israel community, but has since made clear that he supports the agreement.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel advocacy group, opposed the Iran deal and lobbied forcefully against it. If Ossoff emerges victorious from the June 20 runoff, he is likely to strengthen those in Congress who believe that the deal should be upheld and that Iran should enjoy a reprieve in sanctions, positions AIPAC has consistently opposed.
Ossoff met with representatives of AIPAC before the special election and provided them with a policy paper on Israel.
The Ossoff campaign did not respond to a request from the Forward to share the candidate’s position paper on Israel.
In an attempt, perhaps, to emphasize his pro-Israel credentials, Ossoff made a point of mentioning in his official campaign bio that he took a class with the former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren during his undergraduate studies at Georgetown University. Oren, now a deputy minister in Benjsamin Netanyahu’s government, has since taken on a vocal anti-Obama stance, harshly criticizing the Iranian nuclear deal and accusing the former president of “abandoning” Israel.
While Israel is hardly an issue capable of moving voters in the runoff election, Ossoff’s positions could play out in the battle for the hearts and pocketbooks of donors in what could turn out to be one of the most expensive House races in Georgia’s history. During the 2016 election cycle, Jewish Republicans raised out-of-state donations for many GOP candidates based on their rivals’ support for the Iranian nuclear deal or their affiliation with J Street.
Karen Handel, the Republican who will face off with Ossoff in the second round, ran a relatively low-budget race, raising just over $500,000, compared with Ossoff’s impressive $8 million war chest. Republicans have already spent $4 million on ads attacking Ossoff, and many more millions could be on their way from GOP donors seeking to ensure that the district remains Republican. In these massive fundraising efforts, the candidates’ views on Israel could play a role in rallying donors on either side.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.