The ad wars in Pennsylvania represent one of the rare instances of TV political advertising focused solely on Israel. It's not yet clear how or if these opening salvos will ultimately have much impact on Jewish donors or votes.
But they appear to be a harbinger of how intense the race will be between Sestak, the Democratic nominee, and Republican Pat Toomey as they vy for the Pennsylvania's junior Senate seat in November.
The latest polls show the two running about even, but Toomey has amassed a larger campaign chest.
A commercial running in the Philadelphia area on cable and broadcast television, sponsored by a group of conservative Jews and evangelical Christians calling itself the Emergency Committee for Israel, hammers Sestak over his decision three years ago to address a controversial Muslim group. It also criticizes him for signing one congressional letter urging Israel to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip and for not signing another one affirming Israel-U.S. ties.
In response, J Street — the controversial political lobby that presses the U.S. administration and Congress for more proactive peacemaking in the Middle East — has launched its own TV campaign with an ad highlighting what it calls Sestak's commitment to Israel's security and the two-state solution.
The race also appears to be a test for how successful J Street will be in boosting its candidates.
Amid the hullabaloo, Sestak, a retired Naval admiral, appears to be having some success with Jewish donors.
In particular, the campaign and its Jewish supporters are seeking to recruit backers of the defeated U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, especially those who voiced concerns about Sestak's commitment to the Jewish state when he and Specter were vying to win the Democratic primary in May.
Among those who have made the switch is Joseph Smukler, a longtime Jewish communal leader and Specter supporter. The Center City attorney had lent his name to a May 6 advertisement in the Jewish Exponent that stated: "If you care about Israel, as we do, do not allow Joe Sestak to represent you in the U.S. Senate."
But after meeting with Sestak after the primary and discussing the lawmaker's Israel record at length, Smukler decided that Sestak was the better candidate.
"I have a choice between Sestak and Toomey, I don't have another choice. Would I prefer to see Specter? Yes," said Smukler. He cited Sestak's record supporting foreign aid to Israel, and said that criticisms of a letter Sestak signed calling for an easing of the Gaza blockade missed the nuance of the language.
"His plea for humanitarian aid is really consistent with Jewish values," said Smukler.
Smukler, echoing the view of others, said that he was more in tune with Sestak on fiscal and social issues than with Toomey.
But Craig Snider, a Philadelphia-based media entrepreneur who is the son of Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, signed the same Exponent ad as Smukler — and he's now contributing to Toomey.
Citing Sestak's 2007 speech to the controversial Muslim organization and his decision not to sign an AIPAC-based letter earlier this year, he said: "We have seen the writing on the wall with Joe Sestak."
Toomey's opposition to the foreign-aid bill during his three terms in Congress is complicating his efforts to make the case that he's the more pro-Israel candidate, according to analysts.
The former lawmaker from Allentown — who last month addressed two gatherings of the Republican Jewish Coalition — has said that his votes had nothing to do with Israel, but reflected his opposition to the whole structure of American foreign aid.
Political Déjà Vu
In some ways, the scenario seems like 2008 redux, when many wondered whether disaffected Jewish supporters of Hillary Clinton would back Barack Obama — who faced continued questions about his commitment to Israel — or cross party lines to support John McCain.
In the end, most Jewish voters opted for Obama. But a solid year of news reports about rocky relations between America and Israel has raised new questions about whether some Jews will punish Democrats at the polls or stay out of the race altogether.
The newly formed Emergency Committee for Israel, led by William Kristol, the Jewish editor of The Weekly Standard; seems to be banking on the first scenario.
The ad opens with the text: "Does Congressman Joe Sestak understand that Israel is America's ally?" It calls attention to Sestak's speech to the Council on Islamic American Relations, a group with which the FBI had cut ties. The FBI said at the time that until it could determine whether the group "continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and Hamas, the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner."
Sestak has defended that appearance — and his record.
Last week, in his first public comments since the ad campaign against him began, he told the Exponent that assertions that he's anti-Israel couldn't be farther from the truth.
He said that as a former admiral and aircraft carrier commander, 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 nonpartisan issue.
"That people would do this — I don't think it helps Israel, and I don't think it helps the United States," he said.
Sestak's campaign lawyer unsuccessfully appealed to Comcast to remove the ad, claiming that it was "false and misleading." A spokesman for Comcast said that the ad met its standards and would continue to be aired. A committee spokesman said that the Sestak campaign was trying to stifle debate.
For his part, Toomey, via 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."
In response, J Street has purchased a series of ads on cable and broadcast TV that defend Sestak. But the J Street support — it's separate political-action committee has already raised $75,000 for Sestak, and according to the group, is about to surpass $100,000 — raises its own set of questions about whether it will be more an asset or a liability, given the controversy it engenders in the Jewish community.
Just a few months ago, Doug Pike, a former Philadelphia Inquirer editorial writer who ran for Congress in the May primary and lost, rescinded his J Street endorsement, saying it hurt him politically. J Street dismissed that as an isolated incident.
"We have a very large number of candidates all over the country who are very happy to stand with us on behalf of our principles," Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's founder/president, said, adding that it raised nearly $700,000 for 61 candidates nationwide.
Meanwhile, about 35 Sestak supporters, mostly Jews, gathered Monday outside the Comcast Center in Center City. Organized by Burt Siegel, the retired director of the Jewish Community Relations Council who's volunteering for the Sestak campaign, the supporters said that they were defending the congressman against what they described as a smear campaign.
Mark Aronchick, long active in both the Democratic Party and Jewish causes, said at the rally: "I'm principled in that I will not support candidates unless I'm completely satisfied that they are completely solid on Israel."
Aronchick, who had supported Specter but has already held a fundraiser for Sestak, said that it was "horrible" for any candidate or group to "try to make Israel a wedge issue in the campaign."