"Say 'no' to this effort to somehow target Democrats as being opposed to Israel," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is Jewish, said Sept.28 in a hastily arranged conference call with the Jewish media.
The conference call, also addressed by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a likely contender for the presidency in 2008, was the latest response to a series of hard-hitting advertisements placed by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).
The effect of the ad campaign on Jewish voting patterns, which have favored Democrats by wide margins for decades, is likely only to be incremental. However, it could influence how major Jewish and pro-Israel donors spend their money, an area where Democrats acknowledge Republicans have made inroads in recent years.
The money question is especially critical weeks ahead of a midterm congressional campaign that could see Republicans lose one or both houses of Congress.
The most recent RJC ad appearing in papers this week states bluntly, "There is a difference. Republicans are more likely to support Israel."
It cites two recent polls showing that Republicans are much likelier to say their sympathies are with Israel, while Democrats are likelier to divide their responses between support for Israel and neutrality. In both cases, the percentage of those likely to favor the Arabs is minimal.
An earlier ad quoted former President Jimmy Carter questioning the moral underpinnings of Israel's war this summer against Hezbollah in Lebanon -- and saying, in the same interview, "I represent the vast majority of Democrats," though the latter statement referred to Carter's views against the Iraq war.
U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), who is Jewish, slammed the ads in an opinion piece published as a letter in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and in The Forward. Other Jewish legislators also plan to attack the campaign. The latest ad led senior Jewish Democrats to press the Israeli Embassy in Washington and pro-Israel groups to weigh in. Bipartisan support for Israel has always been considered critical to making Israel's case, and the Jewish Democrats told embassy and pro-Israel officials that the RJC campaign undermined that unity.
By the end of Thursday there were results, though spokesmen refrained from directly criticizing the RJC ads.
"Support for the U.S.-Israel relationship has always been bipartisan, with the strong support of both Democrats and Republicans, and that's not changing," said Josh Block, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The Israeli embassy also was careful to keep above the partisan fray.
"There is a longstanding tradition of bipartisan support by both Democrats and Republicans for Israel, which we cherish and for which we are grateful," said David Siegel, the embassy spokesman. "The special relationship between Israel and the United States is deep and profound, based on shared values which transcend party lines in both countries."
Keeping out of local politics is a typical posture for any foreign nation, but one that Democrats, speaking off-the-record, said they found frustrating. In the call with the Jewish media, Wyden worried that Republican sniping about a divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel could be self-fulfilling.
"I think it really could hurt the traditional bulwark of bipartisan support in the Congress," he said.
Matt Brooks, the RJC's executive director, said Democrats would do better to examine whether something was going wrong within their party instead of blaming Republicans for pointing out the problem.
"Their attention is misplaced. We're doing nothing other than illuminating a very sad and disturbing trend taking place," he said. "What the senators should be focusing on is why the grassroots are moving away from the Democratic Party." Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is Jewish, echoed Brooks. Coleman said that his message to Democratic colleagues was "don't shoot the messenger."
"I would hope that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle would be looking inward and doing what they can to restore that strong bipartisan unanimity," he said.
Reed said the poll questions were overly general, and that Jewish voters should pay attention to the solid pro-Israel record of congressional Democrats, who have pressed President Bush to cut off the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and isolate Iran.
"You have to look at what's happening in Congress]," Reed said. He also repeated what has become a theme in the Democratic campaign for Jewish votes -- that President Bush, while well-intentioned, has endangered Israel because the Iraq war has emboldened Iran.
"When it comes to what this administration is doing, that's where the concern should be," he said. "That is much more central to the security concerns of Israel."
Biden, who at times has criticized Israel -- particularly when it expanded settlements -- said Democrats' differences with Israel over tactics did not indicate an erosion in support.
"There's nothing to break Democratic support for Israel, nothing, even if every Jew in the country votes Republican," he said.
Biden said that his differences often were with some in the pro-Israel community, rather than with Israel itself.
He said former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged him to bolster P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate, with assistance, but that colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives who opposed such initiatives stymied his efforts.
Legislation backed by some pro-Israel groups "may be totally divorced from what I'm speaking to the foreign minister about, or my discussions with Sharon before he had his stroke," Biden said.
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