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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2002
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beginning to spill over into U.S. politics, with Republicans gaining favor among Jewish voters, long a liberal constituency of the Democratic Party. Even before President Bush called for Yasser Arafat's political head last week, leading congressional Democrats were concerned that Jewish voters and donors were reassessing their relationship with the GOP.
The problem, as described by the Washington Post's Thomas B. Edsall, is this: "While support of Israel is strong among most Democrats and their leaders, a small but significant faction is openly questioning whether the Bush administration has tilted too far in favor of Israel. They include some of the most senior members of the House, as well as a sizable number of the Congressional Black Caucus. In addition, the proportion of Democratic voters sympathetic to the Palestinian cause is much higher than the proportion of Republicans, according to polls."
The GOP and Christian conservatives have been making a concerted effort to make inroads in this traditionally Democratic constituency by stressing their almost unconditional support for Israel, and their efforts have at least given Jewish voters reason to reconsider their political hostility toward the GOP. According to a recent Gallup Poll, when voters were asked if they were more sympathetic with the Israelis or the Palestinians, Republicans stood with Israel, 66 percent to 8 percent, while among Democrats it was 40 percent to 20 percent.
The Post quoted Harris Bak, a Democratic fundraiser in New York, as saying: "I'm not angry at the Democratic Party, but certainly the trend of the Republicans (in Mideast policy) has been wonderful."
J. Michael Fried, another New York donor who has given to both parties, told the Post: "It is of concern to all of us who are strong supporters of Israel that it took a Republican administration to become the best friend of Israel in 30 years."
Democratic leaders are taking these developments seriously. No one expects an exodus of Jewish voters from the Democratic Party, but there is a concern that Jewish donors may decide to redirect some of their campaign contributions to Republican candidates to show their appreciation of Bush's policy at a time when Israel has few allies in the international community.
The political tension among Democrats on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was on display last month in a vote on a pro-Israel resolution sponsored by House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. Although Democrats voted overwhelmingly for the resolution, which passed 352 to 21, Jewish leaders took note of the fact that of the 50 "no" and "present" votes, 44 were cast by senior Democrats and members of the Black Caucus. Among the senior Democrats who did not vote for the resolution were David Obey of Wisconsin, John Dingell of Michigan, George Miller of California and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.
Obey told the Post that the resolution "asks everything of the Palestinians without asking anything of the Israelis" and undermined the U.S. role as an honest broker.
The vote also surfaced the long-standing tensions between the Jewish and black communities. Of the 37 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 17 either voted "no" or "present" or did not vote at all.
One of the first political casualties of these tensions is U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard, who last week lost his bid for a sixth term in a mostly poor Alabama congressional district. He was defeated by challenger Arthur Davis, a 34-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, in primary contest that attracted campaign donations from both the Jewish and Arab-American communities around the country. Both Hilliard and Davis are African-Americans who disagree on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jewish donors -- especially in New York -- poured money into Davis' campaign, while Arab-Americans contributed to the Hilliard campaign.
Davis gained the advantage in fundraising by portraying Hilliard as anti-Israel. Hilliard made a trip to Libya in 1997, ignoring a State Department ban on travel to that country because of its support of terrorism. He also voted against the DeLay resolution backing Israel in its fight against terrorism. The campaign was soiled by a mysterious flier titled "Davis and the Jews: No Good for the Black Belt." Hilliard denied any connection to the flier.
Despite his sympathy for the Palestinian cause and questions about his ethics, Hilliard went into his re-election battle with the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and about two dozen of his colleagues, many of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
It's not likely that significant numbers of Jewish voters and donors will switch to the GOP, but Democrats should be on notice that they can no longer afford to take this constituency for granted.
Rabbi Shmuel Golden of the Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., recently encouraged attendance at a Tom DeLay fundraiser. He told the Post: "What Democrats have to understand is that Jews are feeling terribly abandoned by the world community. In the face of that abandonment, up come people like DeLay and other House and Senate members who are willing to say, "We are standing with Israel.' We would be terribly remiss if we didn't thank our friends. I think the Democratic Party would do well to be concerned."