A new effort to attack U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak's record on Israel has gone viral. A debate that has long been playing out in the pages of the Jewish Exponent has now made its way to MSNBCs "Morning Joe," and Web sites such as Politico, The Atlantic, Commentary, the Huffington Post and YouTube.
But the stakes are now higher for Sestak, the Democratic nominee going up against Republican Pat Toomey for Pennsylvania's junior Senate seat in the November election.
At the centerpiece of the new campaign against Sestak is a television ad sponsored by a prominent group of Jews and Evangelical Christians calling itself the Emergency Committee for Israel.
The ad, airing in Pennsylvania this week — including during a Phillies game — highlights an appearance he made before a controversial Muslim group in 2007 and criticizes him for signing one congressional letter urging Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza and for not signing another one affirming Israel-U.S. ties.
The spot is likely the first strike in what organizers have vowed will be a sustained effort to challenge Democrats and President Barack Obama on policy toward Israel.
Sestak, in his first public comments since the ad campaign began, told the Exponent on Wednesday that assertions that he's anti- Israel couldn't be further from the truth.
The retired Naval admiral and former air craft carrier commander said that during joint military exercises with Israel, he had been prepared to "lay my life on the line" for Israel, had it been attacked by its enemies during his tour.
"I have great faith in the Jewish community," Sestak said, asserting that Jewish voters in Pennsylvania will see the campaign as the effort of a few "right-wing ideologues" who are trying to politicize what should be a non-partisan issue.
"That people would do this — I don't think it helps Israel and I don't think it helps the United States."
It's been three years since Sestak made his controversial decision to speak at an event hosted by the Council on American Islamic Relations, a group that critics had long accused of having ties to terrorist groups and not condemning terrorism.
Two years after that controversy, the FBI, which used to cooperate with CAIR in its effort to better understand concerns in the Muslim community, cut its ties to the group. The severance of ties came in the aftermath of the 2009 trial against Holy Land Foundation, which was convicted on charges of funneling dollars to Hamas. CAIR was never charged, and has denied any links to terrorism.
But based on evidence introduced at that trial, the FBI wrote in a letter in 2009: "Until we resolve whether there continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and Hamas, the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner."
According to the Anti-Defamation League, CAIR has "refused for many years to unequivocally condemn by name Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations."
So far, the fierce criticism from certain Jewish circles hasn't cost Sestak an election. In 2008, he easily won re-election to his House seat from Delaware County. And in May, he defeated five-term incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary.
But it remains a question whether things will be different now that he's squaring off against Toomey in a highly watched Senate contest that could be a bellwether for how well the GOP does nationally.
The latest polls show the two running about even, but Toomey has amassed a larger campaign chest.
Michael Bronstein, a Philadelphia political consultant and pro-Israel activist who is supporting Sestak, said that the new commercial "is completely different from anything that we have seen before. I suspect it will be effective without an adequate response." On July 13, Jared G. Solomon, a lawyer for Sestak's campaign, sent a letter to Comcast asking that it not show that attack ad on any of the stations it carries on local cable.
"This advertisement is false and misleading and knowingly misstates various facts with respect to Congressman Sestak's position on Israel," the letter states. Most offensive, said the letter, is the allegation that Sestak raised money for CAIR. Sestak had arranged to speak earlier in the evening, before the fundraising portion of the event began, though critics have always discounted the distinction.
Bronstein said that Sestak has a strong voting record on Israel, including his support for the annual foreign aid bill, which Toomey during his time in Congress voted against twice.
In dismissing his critics as "ideologues," Sestak specifically cited William Kristol, the Jewish editor of the Weekly Standard and one-time chief of staff to former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Other members of the committee board include conservative writer and activist Rachel Abrams, who is married to Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser under the first President George Bush; and Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate who leads the group American Values.
The ad, which was airing this week on Fox and CNN, as well as during a Philadelphia Phillies game, opens by asking, "Does Congressman Joe Sestak understand that Israel is America's ally?"
The ad goes on to accuse Sestak of condemning Israel's blockade of Gaza in a Jan. 21 letter signed by 54 Democrats and for refusing to sign a letter drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee asserting U.S. support for Israel.
Sestak said at the time that the Gaza letter wasn't an attack on Israel and placed the blame for Palestinian suffering on Hamas. But the letter urged the Obama administration to press Israel to ease the blockade in a way that didn't compromise Israelis security. The blockade has since been eased somewhat in the aftermath of the May flotilla incident in which an Israeli effort to halt a ship ended in the death of Turkish citizens.
Regarding the pro-Israel letter, Sestak, who is being endorsed by J Street, said that he opted to write his own the same day, placing more emphasis on the need for a two-state solution than the AIPAC-backed letter.
For his part, Toomey, through his spokeswoman, told the Exponent: "It's really unfortunate that Joe Sestak has repeatedly chosen to align himself with the most anti-Israel faction in Congress."
Republicans have been arguing for several years that the GOP is the better alternative when it comes to Israel, though the majority of Jewish voters have continued to stick with the Democratic Party.
But the sustained reports about strains in the U.S.-Israel relationship has provided what many in the party view as a political opening. There was widespread speculation that the administration's recent "charm" offensive to the Jewish community, including a meeting earlier this month with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where the two leaders sought to smooth over recent tensions, was engineered to mitigate potential electoral backlash among Jewish voters come November.
Long before Sestak's stances on Israel became a national issue, they were fodder on the local scene. Sestak worked hard during the run-up to the Democratic primary in May to dispel the notion that he is anti-Israel, a campaign that included a private meeting with some 40 Jewish leaders convened by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
In the May 6 issue of the Jewish Exponent, more than 40 prominent Jewish supporters of Arlen Specter — such as Stephen Cozen, Joseph Smukler and Gary Erlbaum — signed a full page that stated: "If we care about Israel, as we do, do not allow Joe Sestak to represent you in the U.S. Senate."
Immediately after Sestak won his primary, the national office of the Republican Jewish Coalition, circulated an anti-Sestak email and last month, Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, an Elkins Park-based group run by Benyamin Korn, ran its own ad bashing Sestak in the Exponent.
The Palin ad led to a back-and-forth in the letters section of the Exponent. Korn said several people had told him they appreciated the message on Sestak but felt uncomfortable that it came from a group advocating on behalf of the former Alaska governor.
Others, including former Philadelphia controller Jonathan Saidel and former AIPAC president Steve Grossman came to his defense, saying that Sestak "is and always has been a staunch supporter and — quite literally — a defender of the State of Israel.
Korn said that he views the new TV ad as a welcome addition to the debate. "I think it helps us," said Korn.
Korn continues to be most troubled by the CAIR incident. Sestak "already knew that CAIR was deeply tied to terrorism financiers; why did he speak to them anyway?"
Despite repeated calls for Sestak to have canceled before the CAIR speech, and calls for him to admit the appearance was a mistake, he has never backed down.
In his interview with the Exponent this week, Sestak pointed to the fact that Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell appeared at the same event and said the governor had encouraged him to attend.
"I don't just speak to groups that I support, I speak to groups that I don't support and I think that is the job of a congressman in order to have a dialogue," he said. "And I went to CAIR and I criticized their failure to condemn terrorists by name, Hezbollah and Hamas, and the fact that they had not dissociated themselves" from them.