GOP, Democrats jockey over whos best for Israel

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washington | When is asking “is it good for Israel” not so good for Israel?

Democrats and Republicans, politicking hard ahead of midterm elections that could end Republican control of the U.S. Congress, are battling over which party was more supportive of Israel in its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Republicans only offer support to Israel when they think that they’ll get something for it, Democrats said after the Republican-led Congress feted Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister who stood with Hezbollah in the recent conflict.

A ranking Democrat is publicly supporting a terrorist organization,” Republicans barked back after Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) wavered on whether Congress should support Israel in the war.

Jewish leaders have spent years carefully cultivating the bromide that support for Israel is the one bipartisan issue; some tried hard not to wince.

“I do not see the point of constantly testing members of Congress on their Israel bona fides,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton aide and Democratic strategist who was unhappy with both sides for making the war political fodder. “Just for partisan purposes to routinely, constantly test how far you can push members of Congress, I think it’s totally alienating.”

Others said the process was healthy.

“I think it’s a good thing to have members of Congress outdo their colleagues by showing that their pro-Israel credentials are stronger than the next guy’s,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy at United Jewish Communities and a former Republican activist.

At stake is a community that votes in disproportionately high numbers, that breaks ties in swing states like Florida and Ohio, and that has historically favored Democrats in votes and in campaign contributions.

The opening salvo came in the days after the war started on July 12. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, refused to sponsor a resolution affirming the House’s support for Israel in its war against Hezbollah.

Pelosi, who otherwise supported the resolution and instructed her caucus to vote for it, objected to an omission calling on both sides to safeguard civilian lives.

Republicans sidestepped congressional niceties by leaking the dispute to Jewish reporters.

That infuriated Democrats, who noted that Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had voiced similar concerns. They were ready the next week when Maliki came to town.

The Iraqi prime minister was to have represented President Bush’s promise of a democratic Iraq emerging from the ashes of civil war — but Jewish lawmakers seized control of the coverage, lambasting Maliki’s refusal to join other Arab leaders in condemning Hezbollah..

“His comments condemning Israel were wrong but predictable, but his refusal to condemn Hezbollah is painful,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, the Jewish Democrat from New York.

Republicans fired next, when Dingell explained his vote — one of eight — against the resolution.

“I don’t take sides for or against Hezbollah or for or against Israel,” he said in a TV interview. “I condemn Hezbollah as does everybody else, for the violence.”

The latter sentence was left out in Republican releases. The National Republican Congressional Committee accused Dingell of “support for a known terrorist organization.”

The attacks make political sense for Republicans. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, conducted between July 28 and Aug. 1, found a striking partisan gap in support for Israel: Democrats supported neutrality over alignment with the Jewish state, 54 percent to 39 percent, while Republicans supported alignment over neutrality, 64 percent to 29 percent.

Forman attributed the results to the GOP’s substantial evangelical base. “If you take evangelical Christians out of the equation, Democrats and Republicans look about the same on Israel,” he said.

Republican Jews say the poll indicates the Democrats are no longer steadfast on Israel’s security.

Noam Neusner, a former Jewish liaison to the current Bush administration, said that although the trend represents an opportunity for his party, it is disquieting for those who want support for Israel to remain bipartisan.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the bickering was a comfort to him. “The Democrats who are opposed to the president on 99 percent of things are closing ranks on Israel.”