Gillibrand comments on Israel jeopardize Jewish campaign contributions, votes

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Does anybody want to take up a collection to rent Sen.  Kirsten Gillibrand a couple of Jewish advisers?  They’re not that expensive these days, and they could do her a world of good.

It’s bad enough that Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill the seat of now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and runs for a full term in 2010,  is an avid supporter of gun rights.  That plays well in her upstate district, but it’s enough to cause some Jewish voters – and, more importantly, Jewish campaign donors – to hit the “no sale” button.

It also doesn’t help that her record on immigration worries immigrant rights groups.  Jewish voters are traditionally wary of politicians who play the immigration card, even if it’s some other group that’s the target.

And now Gillibrand is displaying what could be a damaging ignorance of pro-Israel politics, a prescription for disaster in New York.

In an interview with the New York Observer’s, she was somewhat positive about the prospect Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will become Israel’s next prime minister, suggesting pragmatism may lead him to “broaden his views.”

But just in case he doesn’t, she said she would be prepared to support diplomatic pressure on the Israeli leader.

“I think the president will use all the means and all the tools in his toolbox to reach a solution for peace in the Middle East,” she said.  “And if he offers positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement,  that will be a strategic decision for the administration and our secretary of state.”

That may not be a particularly radical thing to say, but in New York Democratic politics it’s probably not the mark of political genius.

It’s one thing to believe that Israel sometimes needs a nudge from Washington; lots of lawmakers believe that. It’s another to say it at the outset of a campaign in which Jewish money could play a huge role.

Jewish campaign dollars draw heavily from staunchly pro-Israel givers who tend to respond quickly and aggressively to any deviation from the pro-Israel credo, as defined by groups like AIPAC. And commandment number one is: never support pressure on Israel.

Maybe Gillibrand reads the polls that suggest that American Jews in general don’t take such a tough line. But right now it’s Jewish money that she needs, and statements like that could prove troublesome, especially if her Republican opponent is someone with strong connections to big Jewish givers and decent support from voters – someone like former Gov. George Pataki, rumored to be considering a run.

And her comments will likely generate additional donations for her potential GOP rivals.

With her pro-gun views and positions on immigration, Gillibrand starts the race with some negatives with Jewish voters; her comments on U.S. pressure  and the inevitable GOP effort to tar her as anti-Israel compounds the problem.

Is the predictable Republican spin on Gillibrand fair? Probably not, but it’s the way the game is played in a state that takes pro-Israel politics seriously.

“Unlike Hillary Clinton, who came in with the baggage of the Suha Arafat kiss and understood the need to repair the damage, Gillibrand seems to be so concerned with creating name recognition and visibility that she may be playing everything wrong,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.