Republican ads erode bipartisanship

I just checked my calendar, and almost 44 months remain before the next presidential election. But you wouldn’t know it if you scan this week’s Jewish newspapers and come across full-page political attack ads by Jewish Republicans — ads linking new incoming Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean and Hamas terrorists who use children as suicide bombers. (The ad was only placed in cities with large GOP populations.)

This type of over-the-top advertising is also backed up by columns in conservative journals that attack Dean as if he were Osama bin Laden’s sidekick. Nothing good can come out of such highly misleading political discourse.

The “Karl Rove lieutenants” of the Bush administration and the Republican Party apparatus may find this “savage your opponent” tactic useful, but such hysterical rhetoric does serious harm to our community’s attempts to fashion a strong bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship. Perhaps equally importantly, it imports into our community a cheapened, cynical level of political discourse. It turns our internal community policy discussions from reasoned discussions to hysterical, polarizing, charge/countercharge battles.

Historically, the Jewish community has worked hard to make support for Israel a bipartisan issue. There were, and are, good reasons for this effort. Over the course of decades, partisan control of the White House and Congress can change many times. But the imperative of enhancing the U.S.-Israel relationship is ongoing. Thus, it has been in our interest to sound effusive praise when politicians of both parties say the right thing … and it has similarly made sense to work behind the scenes when they occasionally misspeak. Only when elected officials consistently show that they are antagonistic to the Jewish state have we generally taken public our policy differences with an office holder.

The above tactic has worked well. Today, after more than 30 years of adhering to these rules, federally-elected officials of both parties are overwhelmingly considered friends of Israel. The Democratic leaders in both the Senate and the House — Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi — take a back seat to no one in their support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Dean has demonstrated similar friendship. It is ridiculous to imply, as these ads do, that Dean supports Hamas suicide bombers.

In fact, over the course of the last two years, Dean has spoken eloquently about a wide range of issues on the pro-Israel agenda, such as proclaiming Israel’s right to defend herself from terror. He has repeatedly emphasized the unshakeable alliance between Israel and the United States, and the necessity of a U.S. commitment to ensure that Israel has the resources to guarantee its own defense and security. Dean has regularly lauded Israel’s partnership with the United States in the war on terror, and time and time again, he has addressed the importance of confronting the Iranians, Saudis and Syrians for their support of Hamas.

These attacks on Dean are counterproductive … not only due to their falseness, but because they reduce serious discussion while steering us — as a community — away from the important issues. For example, for all of their high profile, party chairs do not set policy. All of us in the pro-Israel community who care about maintaining the U.S.-Israel relationship should be focused on our real policy makers — the White House and Congress — not the folks who are running the party machinery.

Moreover, partisan food fights tend to trivialize and obscure important public policy issues. During last year’s presidential campaign, Bush backers in the Jewish community (including two columnists in The New York Times and The Washington Post) wrote that in a Kerry administration, the first foreign policy move would be an attempt to curry favor in Europe by promising movement on the Middle East peace process and by putting pressure on Israel. There was no evidence whatsoever that this is what was planned by John Kerry, and there was no serious discussion of whether there was a way to move forward with the peace process without leaning on Israel.

Now a month into the second Bush administration, we have numerous press reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been using the Middle East peace process to curry favor with the Europeans — while at the same time cautioning the Israelis that they would have to make many painful concessions. Because this issue was used as a partisan weapon during the campaign, there is almost no public discussion in the pro-Israel community (by these two columnists or anyone else) about the wisdom of this tactic now that it is being used by the Bush administration.

Republicans may be frustrated by their continuing inability to attract a significant share of the Jewish vote (20-25 percent in the last election), but that does not excuse their ridiculous, over-the-top rhetoric. This trend of attack-style partisanship cheapens our discourse and hinders our pro-Israel policy goals.

Ira N. Forman is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

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