Safire's "Jews for the GOP" spin job

The New York Times columnist tries to woo American Jews on behalf of Republicans by falsely creating anti-Israel, Democratic boogeymen.

Published May 3, 2002 11:27PM (EDT)

If you had a message for America's Jewish leaders and wanted to choose a high-impact day on which to deliver it, you could hardly have chosen better than Monday, April 22. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the country's wealthiest and most powerful pro-Israel lobby, convened that morning in Washington for its annual conference. Most of the major Jewish political figures in America were under one roof. All you'd have needed was the megaphone.

William Safire owns, metaphorically, one of the largest megaphones in journalism with his New York Times column. He used it that day to publish a column headlined "Democrats vs. Israel," asserting that the party of Harry Truman, who recognized the new Jewish state in 1948 within 20 minutes of its announced existence, had abandoned Israel and was now busy "transmogrifying the Arab aggressor into the victim." He suggested that American Jews, who normally vote Democratic by about 4-to-1, should get the message and "think again." Safire made two specific charges relating to Democratic leaders that carried particular sting. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., he wrote, "blocked a bipartisan resolution" designating the PLO as a terrorist group. And Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "refused to allow" Binyamin Netanyahu to testify before his committee on a recent U.S. visit. Safire's implication was clear: Daschle and Biden had, at best, a cavalier attitude toward Israel's security. One can imagine the impact these charges had at the AIPAC gathering, where Daschle was scheduled to speak that very day.

The only problem with these charges is that they are false. But then again, for Safire, it wasn't about the truth. It was about a deliberate political strategy of seizing the moment when American Jews have become more uniformly hard-line in their support for Israel to try to move Jewish votes, and especially campaign contributions, to the Republican side. Safire is doing this even as other conservatives -- William Bennett, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page -- are hammering at the Bush administration for wavering on Israel. It's a good-cop, bad-cop routine that has a foreign-policy goal and a domestic political one. The foreign-policy goal is to push the administration hard to the right on all questions involving Israel and, ultimately, Iraq. The political goal -- which depends in large part on painting Democrats as somehow against Israel, and pretending that no such criticisms also exist within the GOP -- is to distort the record in such a way as to persuade American Jewry that its only reliable friend in these taxing times is the far right.

First, the facts. Daschle "blocked a resolution"? Not quite. Here's what happened.

On the afternoon of April 11, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced that she and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were preparing to introduce legislation labeled the Arafat Accountability Act, which calls for the imposition of sanctions on Yasser Arafat until he and the Palestinian Authority demonstrate that they have taken key steps to crack down on terrorism. This was an updated and tougher version of a similar bill the two had introduced the previous fall. According to National Journal's Congress Daily, however, Feinstein said that on the same day she and McConnell introduced the bill, they had decided not to push it until Secretary of State Colin Powell returned from his trip to the Middle East. Powell left the U.S. on April 7 and returned to Washington April 17.

That same April 11 -- when a suicide bombing also killed six Israelis, and Israel moved on the Jenin refugee camp -- Daschle was asked about the Feinstein-McConnell bill. He said: "I think we need to be really appreciative of the very difficult situation that Secretary Powell finds himself in today. There are many ideas that may deserve consideration at some point. But I think it's critical for us to be as supportive of his effort, not to compound his difficulty. ... The stakes are going to be every bit as high after the Powell mission. I just think that right now ... I just don't want him to have to explain what I said or what somebody else said in the heat of debate in the consideration of a resolution on the Senate floor." Any fair-minded reading of those statements (and he made several others like them that day) leads to the conclusion that Daschle -- very reasonably, and in fact with appropriate deference to the executive branch -- was merely saying that he didn't think senators should be lobbing rhetorical grenades on the Senate floor at a time when violence in the region was escalating, and when Powell was preparing to meet with Arafat and Ariel Sharon.

If that's "blocking a resolution," then it should be noted that Safire's Republican friends in the Senate, like Trent Lott of Mississippi, agreed. On April 18, the day after Powell returned, Lott was asked about Feinstein-McConnell and said: "I haven't looked at the language. I felt very strongly that we shouldn't do anything either way as long as Secretary Powell was in the region." Not only that, but the week before, when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., became the only senator who publicly challenged President Bush's decision to have Powell meet with Arafat, it was Lott who rebuked him: "Most senators have enough sense to keep a cool head at a hot time. He needs to tone it down a little bit."

In those remarks, we hear a conservative Republican warning a Democrat against making statements too hawkishly pro-Israel. So much for Republican resolve and Democratic weakness.

There's still more evidence that refutes Safire's stark partisan divide. Recall that Feinstein and McConnell had originally introduced their bill last fall. At that time, Feinstein received a letter requesting that she hold off on such tough-on-Arafat language and not seek to move the bill. From Democrat Tom Daschle? Try again. From Republican Colin Powell. So if anyone "blocked" the Feinstein-McConnell language for a period of time, it was the administration (and, I would say, for perhaps understandable diplomatic reasons). At any rate, sure enough, on April 18, after Powell had returned, Feinstein and McConnell introduced their bill, with McConnell echoing his Democratic colleagues' caution with regard to timing by pointing out that "we should not be bringing this up for a vote in the Senate right now." Daschle did nothing whatsoever to "block" it. But exactly none of this context or nuance was of interest to Safire, whose paragraph on the matter made it sound as though Daschle was opposed to any statements critical of Arafat as a matter of pro-PLO principle.

The Biden allegation is based on similar pretzel logic. A source familiar with these events says Biden was in Florida during a congressional recess when he received a call from Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., suggesting that they have Netanyahu testify before the foreign relations committee. Biden was skeptical, and replied by asking whether Helms had run this by the White House. Helms said he hadn't, but he would do so and call Biden back. He never did. The White House -- again, this was happening while Powell was on his trip -- clearly did not need the headache of a former prime minister, who is positioning himself to Sharon's right, seizing the platform of an official committee hearing to offer his criticisms of Sharon and, more to the point, of Bush himself. Ultimately, Netanyahu was given a more informal forum, which many senators attended and which was open to the press.

That's "refusing to allow" Netanyahu to testify? Actually, it sounds like more deference to the White House. Safire quoted Biden as saying such an appearance would be "totally inappropriate," and while he did indeed say those words, the full quote, to Al Hunt on CNN, was as follows: "I was asked to hold a hearing, Al, this past week and have Bibi as a witness, and I refused to do it on the grounds that I thought it was totally inappropriate. I'm not Newt Gingrich. I'm not going to go ahead and, while a president has a major initiative and his chief diplomat in the region, invite someone, notwithstanding the fact that I like him, to testify to undercut that initiative." It's clear that Biden's hesitation, like Daschle's, was not based on hostility to the Israel government, as Safire implied. It was based on the principle of executive branch foreign-policy prerogative and the fact that Powell was in the Middle East. Their hesitation was shared by Lott and McConnell, as we have seen, and by Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, and a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., both of whom said on April 18 that it wasn't the job of Congress to make the executive branch's job more complicated. In neither case did Safire acknowledge that Daschle and Biden were speaking while Powell was overseas negotiating, nor did he note that several Republicans had made statements similar to theirs.

But the column surely served its purpose, which Thomas Edsall explained in an April 30 Washington Post piece headlined "GOP Eyes Jewish Vote With Bush Tack on Israel." Republicans are using the perception that Bush has stood firm with Sharon against terrorism to make a more concerted effort than at any time in recent American history to capture Jewish votes and dollars. Of the $62 million raised by Al Gore and Bill Bradley, Edsall notes, $13 million came from Jewish contributors; but of the $150 million taken in by all GOP primary presidential candidates, just $3.75 million came from Jewish donors. Safire's column and other ongoing efforts by Jewish Republican organizations are attempts to change that math.

And yet: At the very same time that Safire and some others (Deborah Orin in the New York Post) are flogging this GOP-can-do-no-wrong spin, other conservatives are taking shots at Bush for not being pro-Israel enough. On April 30, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that figuring out the administration's Middle East policy is "a little bit like Kremlinology. No outsider knows what's really going on; we wonder how many insiders really do." William Bennett warned Bush of a Republican "firestorm" if he wavered on Israel. Gary Bauer, Bill Kristol and the National Review have all chimed in similarly. And on Capitol Hill, Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, defiantly led the effort to push through a toughly worded pro-Israel resolution against the administration's wishes, which passed Thursday.

It's obvious what's going on here. The commentators of the hard right see an opportunity to steal away a chunk of a longtime and crucial Democratic constituency. They're doing it in the first instance by rhetorically equating support for Israel with support for every decision made by Ariel Sharon, which is nonsense. They're doing it by publishing distorted attacks on Democrats as Safire did. It's hardly the case that Democrats are "soft" on Israel. The DeLay resolution was co-sponsored by Democrat Tom Lantos of California, and Daschle led the effort to pass similar language that passed the Senate Thursday.

And, lest one think that Democrats are merely responding to recent pressure from Safire and others, it should be pointed out that Democratic pro-Israeli sentiment hardly started upon Powell's return. On March 21, Feinstein drafted a hard-line letter to the administration asking it not to negotiate with Arafat. Of the letter's 52 signatories, a sizable majority of 30, Daschle included, were members of the party Safire claimed stood against Israel.

The final irony here is that whatever Jewish money Republicans do manage to shift to their side will go to finance House and Senate races for candidates whose states and districts almost uniformly have few Jews, and who stand for a larger set of positions that most Jews find anathema. Democrats are still trying to figure out how to play some post-Sept. 11 offense. If this cynical play at stealing one of their most faithful constituencies can't light a fire under them, it's hard to say what can.

By Michael Tomasky

Michael Tomasky is a political columnist for New York magazine.

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