Readers who are already celebrating the long overdue departure of Arlen Specter from the the US Senate should be advised, to borrow a phrase from noted plagiarizer, Joe Biden, that there was “no space between” the foreign policy positions of long-time Pennsylvania Senator and the ex-Navy admiral, Rep. Joe Sestak who defeated him in Tuesday night’s primary balloting.
Based on the interviews that Specter and Sestak, gave to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, last week, their support of Israel is no less ardent than that of, at minimum, three quarters of both the Senate and the House, while with regard to Iran, the retired admiral takes even a harder line than did the grizzled former Republican.
When asked about Tehran’s nuclear program, Sestak bragged that he had voted for the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act. “Then, last month,” he added, “I voted for a motion ordering the House conferees to retain stronger language contained in the House version of the petroleum sanctions bill.”
“Iran cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons due to our own security and the region’s allies’ security, in particular, Israel,” said Sestak. “While the military option cannot ever be taken off the table, it should be left at the back of the table, as Congress and President Obama continue working toward the imposition of stringent sanctions… A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave national security challenge both to us and our allies, the Israelis, whom President Ahmadinejad has threatened to ‘wipe off the face of the earth,’” said he, repeating what must be the most widely and wildly misquoted statement of the new millennium.
As for an Israeli attack on Iran and Washington’s response, Sestak gave it his qualified blessing. “Any nation has a right to defend itself if it feels threatened. As a former admiral, however, I am familiar with the available strike options in the Persian Gulf, and the fact of the matter is that Israel is not capable of a successful strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure without U.S. military assistance because of factors such as refueling and airspace control, among others.”
“Therefore,” he concluded, “it is incumbent on the United States to make all efforts to ensure Israel’s security in any scenario.” This would seem to mean that, if elected to the Senate, he would support the US going to war on Israel’s behalf if necessary.
Specter, who had jumped to the Democrats following Obama’s election, was somewhat less warlike. “I support enhanced sanctions. It is important that the next round of sanctions be measured,” he told the Exponent. “We must be careful with sanctions so as not to play into the hands of the Iranian leadership, who would very much like to blame Iran’s current economic struggles on the West.”
“[W]e have not reached the point where we must live with a nuclear Iran” he went on. “Israel must do what it deems necessary to ensure its security. The United States needs to respect Israeli security interests, understanding that Israel cannot lose a war and survive,” another Israeli propaganda ploy which has come to be accepted on Capitol Hill as “the truth.”
Specter was then asked by the Exponent about an AIPAC-backed letter to Secretary of State Clinton urging her to reaffirm the bonds between Israel and the United States. “The letter was for all intents a rebuke of President Obama’s course on the Middle East. What has gone wrong?,” asked the interviewer.
“I do not see it as a rebuke of President Obama,” responded Specter, who had the president’s endorsement in the primary. “Rather, it was a reaffirmation of the importance Congress places on our strategic relationship with Israel, which has weathered disputes in the past, just as it will weather the current row.”
When it was Sestak’s turn, he was reminded that he had “suggested that America should push for peace in the Middle East, but that it should not happen at the expense of Israel.”
He was asked about his signing of a recent congressional letter critical of Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, and that his refusal to sign the AIPAC-backed letter to Secretary Clinton, “puts Israel at risk. How do you respond to that?”
The Exponent was referring to the letter sent to Clinton by the House which garnered the signatures of 330 House members. The ludicrous notion that Sestak’s refusal to add his name to it posed a threat to Israel was not mentioned in his reply.
“I strongly support Israel’s security, having visited Israel more than half a dozen times during my naval career,” he began his reply. “I believe that Israel serves as a vital ally to the United States and that the unique U.S.-Israeli friendship must be preserved and strengthened for generations to come. It is also my firm belief that the successful negotiation of a two-state solution will advance Israel’s security in the region.”
“The letter I signed concerning Gaza,” said, “reflects another primary interest we have — humanitarian interests. Currently, Hamas is using the suffering of the Palestinian people as a recruiting tool for terrorists and a bargaining chip with foreign powers, and they should be held to account. I believe humanitarian aid — with the appropriate oversight and safeguards — will over time lessen, not increase, the capacity of Hamas to threaten Israel. I truly believe the United States can meet our humanitarian interests without impacting the vital interest of our own, and Israel’s, security.”
“With regard to the AIPAC-backed letter,’ he continued, “I believe it was a good letter, but did not include the overarching point of how finger-pointing amongst allies does not help provide an effective dialogue amongst friends; and, moreover, that our continuing objective must be a two-state solution that ensures Israel’s security, and is forward-looking about ensuring that these kinds of situations do not recur in the future. I raised these two points in my own letter that I wrote to Secretary Clinton the same day.” That may have got him off the hook.
When the questions turned to the importance of the settlements and the ongoing dispute between Washington and Tel Aviv, Specter apparently had only a few words to say,. “The situation is far more complex than that one issue.”
Sestak was more forthcoming. “The settlements dispute should not have occurred between the United States and Israel, two stalwart allies,” he said.. “The way it was handled by both nations has not helped bring about a positive engagement. The United States must keep in mind that if Israel does not feel secure, then it is less willing to take risks for peace, and we must continue to ensure that Israel’s security in the region is our No. 1 goal.” Come again? Israel’s security is more important to the US than its access to oil?
Both incumbent and challenger were somewhat vague on the future of Jerusalem. When asked if they believed that “a unified Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel” and “ if not, should Israel freeze all its building in eastern Jerusalem?,” Specter replied that “Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel,” and noted that, “In 1983, I joined Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in introducing legislation to require the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I continue to support legislation requiring such a move.” That’s a pretty safe statement since the legislation invariably contains a presidential waiver which every president has exercised since its passage for to make such a move would be sure to cause a rupture in US-Arab relations. Moreover, Israel has never made moving the US Embassy as big an issue as it has been for US politicians trolling for campaign funds.
Sestak chose not to get too deep into the subject. “Both issues,” said, “are ones that should be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians with the United States ‘in the room’; nothing should be mandated — by the administration or by Congress — upon the two parties as a condition for peace or at the beginning of the peace process.” The suggestion of leaving all decisions to “the parties” as if Israelis and Palestinians were on an equal footing has become a tradition in Washington and Sestak, if elected in November is unlikely to rattle it.
The last foreign policy question concerned “the threat” made by Palestinian Authority’s unelected Prime Minister “to go before the United Nations next year asking for recognition of a Palestinian state based on the institutions he has created in the West Bank.” Should the U.S. approve or veto such a resolution?, both Specter and Sestak were asked.
Avoiding a direct answer, Specter replied that, “The United States should support a two-state solution, but should not dictate the terms.” On the other hand, his challenger, Sestak was adamantly against recognition of a Palestinian state. “The United States should not approve such a resolution,”he declared. “It would be absolutely wrong to recognize Palestinian statehood until the Fatah-Hamas schism is resolved, and both the Palestinians and Israelis come to a peaceful agreement on borders that will be recognized and respected throughout the region. The United States must continue its efforts to effect [sic] this reality.
Finally, the incumbent and challenger were asked.”Why should a Jewish voter in Pennsylvania choose you?
Specter, who is Jewish, gave a relatively short answer:
“My long-term commitment to issues of concern to Israel and to Jewish Americans, coupled with my proven ability to deliver for Pennsylvania, are several such reasons. As The Philadelphia Inquirer said in endorsing me: ‘The senator is still a highly influential lawmaker and appropriator on behalf of Pennsylvanians. He is also one of those rare congressmen who contribute both on the national and international stages. His expertise on the Middle East, federal law enforcement, the judiciary, and health-care research has provided presidents of both parties with valuable counsel.’
Sestak came out even stronger on Israel’s behalf:
“I think Jewish voters should support me primarily for the same reasons any Pennsylvanian would support me — they share my commitment to Democratic values and Pennsylvania’s working families’ health, education and security. But I also intend to use my unique background as the highest-ranking former military officer ever to serve in Congress to help preserve America’s commitment to Israel’s security, promote a robust peace effort, and advocate for tough diplomacy and sanctions to contain Iran and other threats to America and our allies.
“Both as an admiral and as director of defense policy under President Clinton, I have personally undertaken several efforts to advocate for Israeli security and ensure Israel’s ability to maintain its qualitative military edge.”
It is worth noting that neither Specter or Sestak were asked their views about either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars by the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent as if those wars are of no interest to the city’s Jewish community.
Sestak, without any question, will be seeking support from major Jewish donors as he goes up against his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey in November. His responses to the Exponent should assure AIPAC that he’s their man as was Specter. Checks are probably already in the mail.
JEFFREY BLANKFORT can be contacted at [email protected]