Why is Israel An Issue in CA-GOP Primary?

This week’s New Yorker has a piece by Connie Bruck on the California Republican senate primary, where votes will be cast on June 8. The race is between fiscally-conservative but socially-liberal former House member Tom Campbell and his opponent from the right, all-around-conservative former H-P CEO Carly Fiorina.

California, of course, is loaded down with problems of national significance — its budget shortfalls and the immigration issue, for example. Campbell’s position as a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican seems to jibe well with the Cali electorate, where a quarter of voters are registered Republicans, but, Prop 8 aside, the population at large is liberal-minded. Campbell has newspaper endorsements galore. But the right wing of the CA GOP smells blood and wants to knock off Barbara Boxer with Fiorina, whose demagoguery seems to know no bounds. (The race, so far, is probably best known nationally for the ridiculous “Demon Sheep” attack ad put out by Fiorina.)

What really struck me in Bruck’s snapshot of the race (sub only, unfortunately), though, was the disproportionate focus on Israel in the primary. It’s the only issue Bruck hones in on in the piece, mentioning others briefly, but filling most of the space around Israel with biographical profiles.

In Bruck’s lede, we get this tidbit of what’s to come: “A supporter of Israel, he has nevertheless voted, on occasion, in ways that incur the enmity of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby.”

See, Campbell was on the House Foreign Affairs Africa sub-committee, and spent time in Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Somalia. He saw hunger, and he saw terrible things. He questioned — only mildly — why the U.S. was sending so much of its money into the Southeastern corner of the Med.

As a result of the 1998 Wye River round of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, President Clinton asked Congress to increase aid to Israel by nine hundred and thirty million dollars, and to Egypt by seven hundred and fifteen million dollars — in addition to the three billion dollars that Israel already received, and the two billion dollars given to Egypt. Campbell supported the President’s request. “Then the Republican leadership said, ‘We are going to do even more — we’ll put in an additional fifty million,'” Campbell recalled. Thirty million was to go to Israel, twenty million to Egypt. “And they were going to take that money from the neediest countries on earth” — sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. “That was wrong.”

Campbell proposed an amendment eliminating the increase. According to a Campbell supporter, AIPAC asked Campbell to withdraw it and warned him about the political cost of not doing so. When I asked Campbell if that was true, he said, “I knew the risks of what I was doing, and let me just pour my heart out for a second. In Africa, a small amount of money buys a water pump, or sends a nurse to inoculate a child. That is a lifetime of benefit.” He added, “I should think California would want somebody who’d be willing to make a decision based on what’s right, even it has long-term implications of a political nature.”

An official with a pro-Israel organization in Washington said, “Tom Campbell was one of the four or five people in the history of Congress who moved to cut aid to Israel. He did not have consistent good record on issues important to the pro-Israel community.”

This seems to be the only instance (at least mentioned in the piece, which glosses over another vote for reducing economic aid to Israel) where Campbell balked at the unflinching Israel-hugging in Congress. After supporting the initial 715 million, it was a matter of a mere 4 percent increase in the increase of aid to Israel that Campbell thought could be better spent elsewhere. (Of what had become, after the first boost, the total aid to Israel, the additional 30 million would have been less than a percent hike.)

There are bigger issues than Israel in the world. There are bigger issues than Israel in California — or so one might expect. The incident, however, set up Campbell for more than a decade of vilification by the Lobby and its supporters. Israel remained prominent in the race as Campbell pulled ahead, and it soon got ugly:

Shortly after Campbell took the lead in the Senate race, what he called a “whispering campaign” charged that he was “unsympathetic to Israel, or worse.” When Bruce McPherson, the former California secretary of state, called Fiorina’s campaign manager, Martin Wilson, to say that he was supporting Campbell and not Fiorina, Wilson replied, “How can you support that anti-Semite?” Wilson has denied this.

Campbell’s opponents dredged up his 2002 letter of support for Sami Al Arian, the Palestinian professor and activist then in danger of losing his job and who, in 2003, was accused of having ties to terror groups and eventually plead guilty to one of the lesser charges. (Remember that Al Arian, who Campbell supported on grounds of academic freedom, met with George W. Bush in the White House — so Campbell was not his only friend in high places before the politicized campaign against him.) Campbell told a press conference in March that he was not aware of Al Arian’s alleged harsh statements about Israel, but he should have been, and apologized. Nonetheless, accusations continued to fly, and may still:

[…O]n a Sacramento talk-radio show featuring the three candidates, Fiorina said that she didn’t believe Campbell was an anti-Semite, but, she continued, “I do believe that Tom Campbell is anti-Israel, and many in the Jewish community agree with me.” After Campbell offered his defense, apologized, and met iwth leaders of the Jewish community, the issue receded. Should the race tighten in the coming week, a Fiorina adviser said, the controversy might reemerge, in the form of a TV ad.

Will this one involve farm animals with glowing red eyes? Or perhaps we’ll see Campbell in Nazi regalia?

As a rich former CEO, Fiorina has had less cash problems all along, but I wonder what impact all the Israel focus had on the race. Campbell recently ran out of cash and was unable to put up TV spots for two days in the last week of the campaign. While Fiorina has backed off the Israel issue — she’s some 15 points ahead, so the race has not, in fact, tightened — the Lobby and its tentacles continues to dog Campbell.

Bruck ends her piece with this scene:

One morning in mid-May, Bruce Ramer, an entertainment lawyer and a strong supporter of Israel [and other entertainment and tech hot shots] hosted a breakfast for Campbell at the Regency, a private club in Westwood. About twenty-five men attended, many from the entertainment industry. […]

When Campbell asked for questions, someone wanted to know about his position on Israel. He said that he has always been a strong support of the U.S.-Israel military alliance: “It’s essential to our well-being and our global position.” He said that he had never case a vote to reduce military aid to Israel, only economic, and on only two occasions. He believes that, if Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the U.S. should support it; that it is a mistake to send the message, and the U.S. has, that it is restraining Israel. “I fault the President for that,” Campbell said.

“Anti-Israel”; “anti-Semite”; “not […] a consistent good record” on Israel. These words describe the candidate who wants to support the Likudnik wet-dream of a bombing run on Iran.

Despite a recent shift in discourse in the U.S., the Status Quo Lobby manages to keep the issue central, even when it’s not, even when it’s just a matter of degree — a 4 percent degree. That miniscule difference is worth nearly a thousand words on Israel (including the Al Arian bit) in a six page article on the race in the New Yorker.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

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6 Comments

  1. I did not mean to imply that Frum has become any sort of lefty. I was merely pointing out that Frum is supporting the more “moderate” candidate in the Republican race, whereas five years ago he probably would’ve preferred Fiorini. I meant to indicate a possible (albeit small) evolution of his thinking, and was trying to point you towards new information that might inform your own views.

    Frum and Flynt Leverett are very close friends. Again, I rather assumed this fact was unknown to you; and thought perhaps you might find this information useful. Sorry if I ruffled any of your feathers; unfortunately I need to be reminded that facts inconvenient to others’ prejudices are never welcome.

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