Flotilla Fallout: Will It Matter on Election Day?

It's a question worth asking: What effect will the May 31 Israeli flotilla incident have on domestic politics, especially in the already heated Senate race here in Pennsylvania?

Republican Senate hopeful Pat Toomey — who took less than 24 hours to put out a statement after the event that had reporters and pundits writing and blogging like wildfire — is clearly hoping that his response will help differentiate his position on Israel from that of his opponent, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.

No matter what, Republicans are clearly gearing up to make Israel an issue in the contest.

A number of politicians issued statements addressing last week's actions, which left nine Turks dead and six Israeli soldiers wounded after Israeli commandos boarded a ship aimed at breaking the blockade of Gaza.

"Although much of the world community wants to deny it, Israel has a legitimate right to self-defense, and it is exercising that right in the waters near Gaza," Toomey said in a June 1 statement. "I refuse to join the 'blame-Israel-first' crowd."

His statement came after months of trying to differentiate his stances on Israel and Iran from those of Sestak and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who was defeated last month by Sestak in the Democratic primary.

Toomey, the former president of the conservative Club for Growth, outlined his approach during a speech in Blue Bell last week hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition — his first to a Jewish group since the primary.

As part of his outreach, he's stressing fiscal issues, arguing that the president is taking the country in the wrong direction. Though against abortion, he is focusing less on social issues than did former Sen. Rick Santorum, the last GOP Senate candidate to face voters in a general election. Toomey is also asserting that he represents a better choice when it comes to Israel.

Back in the fall, the former congressman from Allentown — who faces a tough task wooing Jewish voters who regularly shun the GOP — criticized both Democrats for failing to co-sponsor Iran sanctions legislation. (Both said that they wanted to give diplomacy more time, but ultimately voted in favor of additional sanctions.)

Sestak's response to the flotilla incident came four days after Toomey's and followed an inquiry from the Jewish Exponent.

"While the Palestinians have a right to humanitarian assistance, we must not forget that there remain radicals, fueled by organizations like Hamas, who wish Israel's destruction and have no intention of recognizing its right to exist," said Sestak.

In January, the retired Navy admiral was one of 54 Democrats who signed a letter urging the Obama administration to look for ways to ease humanitarian suffering in Gaza without jeopardizing Israeli security. He reasoned that protecting Israel's security is a vital U.S. interest, but so, too, is improving the lives of Gazans.

"Above all, this incident highlights the fact that the status quo is unacceptable, and that the United States must take a lead role in encouraging further dialogue," he said in the statement.

In many ways, the flood of statements from office-holders and candidates, as well as organizations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council, seemed like scenes from a political rerun. The particulars may have changed, but many of the themes still sound the same.

Time and again, the RJC has argued that it represents the party of moral clarity, viewing Israel as a stalwart ally in the battle against Islamic extremism. The RJC tries to paint Democrats as having abandoned Israel in the name of relativism.

At the same time, the NJDC has repeatedly accused the RJC of seeking to exploit the Israel issue for political gains, and in the process, of weakening the bipartisan consensus of support for the Jewish state.

Records Speak for Themselves

In nearly all recent elections in the Keystone State, the overwhelming majority of Jews has stuck by the Democrats, with a small minority citing Israel as a deciding factor in their votes.

But have recent diplomatic tensions between America and Israel altered the calculus of how events in the Middle East reverberate in a domestic context?

William Wanger, a Blue Bell attorney who serves as lay chair for the local RJC chapter, predicted that with November so far away, the flotilla affair will have little impact on the final outcome. But more broadly, he argued that Israel will play a crucial part in the Senate campaign because many Jews seem so disenchanted with the direction of Obama's Mideast policy.

"I think you will see there is a man who is sympathetic and understanding of Israel, and a guy who has a moral relativistic view of Israel," Wanger said of Toomey and Sestak, respectively.

Mark Aronchick, a Center City lawyer influential in statewide and national Democratic politics, said that it's impossible for a news event of this scope not to resonate in electoral politics.

"It brings to a head what is or should be American policy in the Middle East," he said. The flotilla incident and Gaza blockade are going to work their way in, he said, although "it's important not to overstate it."

Aronchick also noted that while it's fair game for Toomey and Sestak to debate specific policy points, it's wildly inaccurate to portray either candidate as anti-Israel.

Nevertheless, shortly after Sestak's primary win, the RJC circulated a document titled "The Facts on Joe Sestak's Record: Wrong on Israel — Wrong for the Senate."

"There is no question that the record of Congressman Sestak when it comes to Israel is appalling," Matt Brooks, national executive director of RJC, said in an interview.

The RJC's document cites the Gaza letter and Sestak's refusal to sign a congressional letter signed by the majority of Congress that reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Sestak drafted his own letter instead.

Ira Forman, executive director of the NJDC, argued that Sestak's statement on the flotilla incident was not much different from Toomey's. He predicted that efforts to draw distinctions on Israel would fall flat.

"Toomey is not the right type of Republican to get Jewish votes in the state of Pennsylvania. Sestak, given his AIPAC voting record, can't be demonized as a Jimmy Carter," said Forman, referring to the former president's harsh criticisms of the Jewish state. "The result is that Jewish votes are highly likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic."

Sestak supporters say that they've got a ready-made counter to Toomey's claim to the pro-Israel mantle.

During Toomey's three terms in the House of Representatives, from 1998 to 2004, he twice voted against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's top legislative agenda — the foreign-aid bill — which annually provides the Jewish state with more than $2 billion in financial assistance. (Throughout his two terms, Sestak has backed foreign aid.)

When pressed last week at the RJC event, Toomey said that he does not oppose foreign aid in principle. Rather, he objects to the way that dollars have been disbursed and the lack of oversight involved.

Toomey added that he feels Israel no longer needs economic aid, and should simply receive military assistance.



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