U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7) is under political fire for signing on to a congressional letter urging President Barack Obama to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Although he was one of 54 House Democrats to sign the Jan. 21 communiqué, the national office of the Republican Jewish Coalition singled Sestak out in a statement decrying the letter as a "troubling" development that "raises questions about whether the Democrats' traditional support for Israel is weakening."
The flap comes as the race for the Pennsylvania Senate seat is heating up. Sestak trails Democratic rival Sen. Arlen Specter by 17 points in the latest Franklin & Marshall poll; their Republican opponent Pat Toomey is leading both of them by double digits.
The RJC said that it targeted Sestak specifically because he is the only House member "seeking a promotion" by trying to unseat Specter.
The congressional letter to Obama said that "the current blockade has severely impeded the ability of aid agencies to do their work to relieve suffering."
"We recognize that the Israeli government has imposed restrictions on Gaza out of a legitimate and keenly felt fear of terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups," the letter said, noting also Egypt's blockade of its border. "This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip."
Israel withdrew its forces and civilians from Gaza in 2005; two years later, Hamas took over the territory after a violent confrontation with Fatah. Last December, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.
Daniel Kutner, Israel's consul general in Philadelphia, would not comment on the letter, but spoke on the overall situation on the ground.
"As long as Hamas continues to attack Israel with missiles and other means, Israel will not open the border crossings," he said, adding that "Israel is doing everything possible to ensure that humanitarian aid enters Gaza in a controlled manner to ensure that their population receives what it needs."
Denies Anti-Israel Intent
Sestak, a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy, insisted that the letter was not anti-Israel, and that he blames the Palestinians' suffering on Hamas.
Still, he said, the United States should investigate whether there is a way to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza without bolstering Hamas or threatening Israel's security interests.
Sestak acknowledged that signing on to the letter was politically risky, and that it could be used "against me." But he said that it was more important to him to stand up for his convictions.
He said that while Israel's security is a vital U.S. interest, the welfare of Gazans is a humanitarian concern: "I think we should be looking at this because I think it's part of what we stand for as a nation."
Toomey, the Republican who is seeking Specter's seat, criticized the letter, saying: "I strongly disagree with Joe Sestak's effort to pressure Israel. The Israeli actions in Gaza are legitimate self-defense, without which we would see Hamas turning Gaza into a terrorist launching pad once again."
Specter did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-District 2) was the only other Pennsylvania lawmaker to lend his name to the letter.
He, too, did not respond to a request for comment.
As for the RJC's questioning of Democratic support for the Jewish state, David Streeter, spokesman for the National Jewish Democratic Council, responded that the "Obama administration and the House and Senate Democratic leadership take a back seat to nobody" when it comes to "strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and expanding Israel's qualitative military edge."
Sestak, who's trying to make inroads into Specter's traditional support among Jews, has often spoken about the necessity of Israel's security to U.S. interests.
In October, he backed a congressional resolution blasting the U.N. Goldstone report, which accused Israel of committing possible war crimes in the Gaza Strip and, in December, he signed a letter to Obama calling for increased military aid to Israel.
But some of his positions have angered pro-Israel activists — from his decision to address a controversial Muslim group in 2007 to his initial reluctance to back Iran sanctions earlier this fall.
Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that both Sestak and Fattah have amassed strong pro-Israel voting records.
But one Capitol Hill source close to the pro-Israel community, who asked not to be identified, said that "there were a lot of problems and inaccuracies in the letter, which is reflected by the marginal support it drew, largely from the members traditionally least supportive of Israel and its right to self-defense."