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Congressional leaders rush to demonstrate Israel support

Congress Is Giving Israel Vote of Confidence Both Parties Back Ally, Court Jewish Support

By JIM van de HEI 
The Washington Post  Wednesday, 19 July 2006

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican congressional leaders are rushing to offer unalloyed support for Israel's offensive against Hezbollah fighters, reflecting a bipartisan desire to not only defend a key U.S. ally but also solidify long-term backing of Jewish voters and political donors in the United States, according to officials and strategists in both parties.

With Israel intensifying its air and artillery attacks on Lebanon and warning of a protracted war, the Senate yesterday unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution endorsing Israel's military campaign and condemning Hezbollah and its two backers, Iran and Syria. A few hours earlier, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) delivered his most strident defense of Israel since the conflict erupted a week ago. The House is expected to pass a similarly pro-Israel resolution today.

At the same time, several candidates in highly competitive races are touting their unequivocal backing of Israel. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), who faces a tough reelection race against a Jewish Democrat, introduced his own resolution charging that "both Syria and Iran are directly responsible for this act of terrorism and should be held accountable." In Minnesota, Rep. Mark Kennedy, the Republican Senate candidate, is criticizing what his campaign calls Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar's "deafening silence" on the conflict, calling her a "timid soul." Klobuchar, however, has staked out a similarly pro-Israel position.

'We are all Israelis'

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman punctuated the day with a speech to Christians United for Israel last night, declaring that "today, we are all Israelis." Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, support for Israel has only intensified among politicians and the public, lawmakers say and polls confirm. The Jewish state is frequently praised as a vibrant democracy and trusted U.S. ally, one that has suffered greatly from terrorism. Israel is also the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and benefits from a widespread perception that it is smart politics to embrace Israel, according to Democratic and Republican officials and strategists.

But some U.S. officials worry that the political calculation is undermining efforts to find a peaceful solution to the latest conflict. "There is no danger for the candidates," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), adding that those politicians "will get rewarded politically and financially for being out front in their support." Moran said, however, that the outpouring of political support could prove dangerous for Israel. That's because Israeli officials "know they can only go as far as the United States backs them," and the flurry of pro-Israel activity "can encourage their leadership to overreach and create situations that become more problematic," he said.

'Collateral political benefit'

Moran was forced to apologize three years ago for blaming U.S. Jews for pushing the country into the Iraq war. Moran holds a minority view in Congress. Many Democrats, who are among the largest recipients of Jewish votes and money in federal elections, are working with Republicans to pressure President Bush to reject calls to strike a more measured tone and prod Israel to show greater restraint. "I don't think [Republican politicians] made any of their decisions in this crisis or previous ones based on politics," said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is running newspaper ads in Jewish newspapers praising Bush for backing Israel. "However, there is certainly a collateral [political] benefit" of speaking out early and forcefully. Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said lawmakers in both parties "believe there are very important groups in American politics that care about Israel, and that includes the Christian right and Jewish groups," she said.

Based on her research and experience, however, Greenberg said Jewish voters are motivated as much by domestic issues such as separation of church and state as by a candidate's passion for Israel. Still, the rising pro-Israel sentiment in Congress has coincided with stepped-up efforts by Democrats and Republicans to increase their support among Jews. On the Republican side, the dynamics have changed considerably in the past decade. Evangelical Christians, who were once suspected by some of anti-Semitism, have led a Republican effort to forge close ties with Israel.

Republican support among Jews increasing

The effort is working, strategists from both parties said. In every presidential election since 1992, Republicans have increased their share of the Jewish vote. In 1992, Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, won 11 percent. In the 2004 presidential election, the current president captured about 25 percent, according to exit-poll data. "Jewish voters are becoming less partisan and more independent in their thinking, which I think gives an opportunity for inroads among Republicans," said Shaw, who represents a large number of Jewish voters along Florida's southern Gold Coast. Based on a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Republicans are also getting a larger percentage of money from Jewish political committees and self-identified Jewish donors.

So far this election cycle, Republicans have received about 42 percent of money from Jewish groups and individuals. If that number holds, it would be the highest percentage since the center started tracking these donations in 1990. The Jewish community remains predominantly Democratic and is considered one of the most influential parts of the party's base. Polls show most Jewish voters agree with Democrats on social issues and many other domestic concerns. While some House Democrats have questioned the wisdom of unconditional support for Israel — a point pro-Republican Jewish groups frequently make — party leaders such as Reid are among the biggest defenders of Israel.