Swiftboating Sestak on Israel
Posted by Joel Rubin
A new right-wing neoconservative attack group on Israel policy has been formed by the same ideologues that brought you the war in Iraq. This group — the Emergency Committee for Israel — has decided to make Pennsylvania’s upcoming Senate race its pivotal moment to enter national politics. It has done so by running television ads against Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak that turn Israel into a political wedge issue, cynically playing on the worst fears of Americans who do not share their policy views on Israel.
We have seen this script before, particularly when the national security credibility of Sen. John Kerry was impugned during the 2004 presidential campaign. The term used to describe that episode was “swiftboating,” which created the impression that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was not to be trusted on national security while George W. Bush, who served but never deployed, was better qualified to defend the nation.
Now, the same forces are threatening to swiftboat Sestak as “weak” on Israel because he supports active American diplomacy to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, never mind the fact that he is a retired three star admiral and the highest-ranking former military officer currently serving in the U.S. Congress.
The motivations for these attacks are similar to 2004, when these same neoconservatives attacked Kerry’s strength — his military service record — in order to block his ascent to the presidency and his desire to change course in Iraq. They won that battle, and the country is still recovering from the consequences of that disastrous war.
What is shamelessly clear from these cynical attacks against Sestak is that Israel policy is being used for harsh political purposes, with the ultimate goal of dealing President Obama a devastating foreign policy setback while blocking his attempts to promote Middle East peace. Unfortunately, these ideological warriors have little care for the real world consequences of such actions, which if successful, would undercut American interests in the Middle East for narrow partisan gain.
So let’s examine some of the myths about these ads.
These ads would have you believe that Sestak’s opponent, Pat Toomey, is stronger on Israel than Sestak. Yet Toomey voted against military aid to Israel when he was in Congress while Sestak has consistently supported it. In addition, Sestak personally helped to protect Israel at the start of the 2003 Iraq war when he was in the Navy, while Toomey was sitting safe in Congress, voting for that war.
These ads would also have you believe that Sestak doesn’t recognize Israel as an ally because he signed a congressional letter earlier this year — along with 53 other members of Congress — that asked President Obama to ask the Israeli government to, among other items, provide access to clean water, medicine and sanitation supplies to the Palestinians in Gaza. Yet the ad failed to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite the fact that his government now supports these same positions.
These ads would also have you believe that Sestak refused to show sufficient support for Israel because he didn’t sign a congressional letter on Israel that the ad failed to describe. However, the ad neglected to mention that Sestak just signed a major bipartisan congressional letter that expressed its “ … strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself” after the flotilla incident. The letter was strongly backed by AIPAC and attracted 338 bipartisan signatures, yet the ad never criticized AIPAC for asking the alleged anti-Israel Sestak to sign it.
Lastly, these ads would have you believe that Sestak, the retired three star admiral, is a terrorist sympathizer because he spoke at an event organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in 2007, even though the FBI had used this group for outreach to the Muslim community during that time and up until 2009. Not surprisingly, the ad somehow failed to criticize the FBI and the Bush Administration for having dealt with CAIR at the same time that Sestak did.
Fortunately, we already have evidence of how Jewish voters in Pennsylvania — the apparent target of these ads — react to this type of political chicanery. In the Democratic primary, Sestak defeated Sen. Specter in almost every suburban Pennsylvania community that has a substantial Jewish population, despite similar smears made at the end of their campaign.
There is a lesson in this, as the hard right partisans that use Israel policy as a political wedge may find that not only is it not to their advantage to make such attacks, but that it can actually backfire. It certainly contradicts America’s most celebrated military officers, Gen. David Petraeus, who is firmly on the record in stating that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in America’s interest. Perhaps someone should remind the Emergency Committee for Israel about this fact, before they do more damage.
My bet is that it will be Pennsylvania’s voters.
(This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and reflects the author's personal views, not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)