Democratic hopefuls talk Israel in bid for Harman’s seat

For politicians today, making it to Washington often requires them to explain their views about what should happen to Jerusalem.

That was the case at the Hermosa Beach Community Center on April 20 when four of the 16 Democratic candidates running in a May 17 special election for the open seat in California’s 36th Congressional District met in a debate on U.S.-Israel and Middle East policy organized by Democrats for Israel (DFI).

Jane Harman, who was among the most ardent pro-Israel voices in the legislature and held the seat for 16 of the past 18 years, announced she would leave Congress to take an academic post in February, just three months after winning re-election in 2010.

For Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who have each raised and spent more than any of the other Democratic candidates, the DFI debate was a chance to tout their pro-Israel credentials.

Marcy Winograd, a teacher who took 41 percent of the vote when she faced off against Harman in the 2010 Democratic primary, used the opportunity to restate her own preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the establishment of a single non-sectarian state that would grant equal voting rights to Israelis and Palestinians. Many observers, including Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), have said that Winograd’s position would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

And for Dan Adler, a businessman who has never held political office and formalized his candidacy just before the filing deadline, the debate was a chance to introduce himself as a well-informed and passionate supporter of Israel, albeit one with an uphill fight on his hands, as he is running against better-known and (at least two) better-funded opponents.

Since none of the candidates at Wednesday’s forum has held an elective office with foreign policy responsibilities, the event was, for the 100 people who attended, a unique chance to hear how the candidates think about the issues.

“We thought that voters deserve as much information as possible about the candidates,” DFI President Leeor Alpern said, explaining the reason for holding the debate.

With the obvious exception of Winograd, it was occasionally hard to find differences between the candidates’ positions.

Moderator Conan Nolan of NBC 4 asked questions on a variety of subjects, covering Israeli settlements in the West Bank, sanctions against Iran and even one question about whether President Obama should have consulted with Congress before engaging American military personnel in the NATO-led strikes against the government forces in Libya.

In response to a question submitted in advance over the Internet, Hahn, Bowen and Adler all said that Israel had the right to defend itself against an attack from Iran. Winograd pointed out that Israel, unlike Iran, already has nuclear weapons, and that perhaps Israel was more likely to be the aggressor.

Asked what they would do if, as a member of Congress, a bill came before them attempting to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel — a strategy referred to as BDS — the trio of Israel supporters all said they stood against it. Winograd, for her part, said she supported BDS against “companies that profit from the Israeli occupation,” noting that she, as a teacher, supported the current effort to divest the funds that support California teachers’ pensions from such companies.

Some differences—in tone, if not in substance—did emerge between Adler, Bowen and Hahn over the course of the 90-minute debate.

Hahn said repeatedly that to resolve the conflict, Israeli and Palestinian leaders needed to come back to the negotiating table. She called the focus on settlements unhelpful, but also said that the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in March 2010 to announce the approval of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem “probably didn’t help the peace process.”

In response to the same question, Bowen sounded slightly more critical of Israel — but only slightly. “Support of Israel does not mean that we forego our right to critique her,” Bowen said.

Later in the debate, Bowen brought up the subject of settlements again. “Settlements are not conducive to the peace process,” Bowen said. “But neither are rockets.”

In talking about settlements, Adler, too, talked about the need for a negotiated peace and emphasized that, although West Bank settlements were a problem, they were not the problem.

“There are two different kinds of settlements,” Adler said in a comment that illustrated his nuanced understanding not just of the geography of the West Bank, but of Israeli internal politics. “There are the settlements of one person standing in the middle of a Palestinian community, requiring a ring of Israeli IDF soldiers to protect him or her, and then there are suburbs of Jerusalem and other places.”

“The settlements are not the problem,” Adler added, “although the settlements are mishandled by the Israeli government. The issue is how can direct negotiations happen when both parties—or possibly three necessary parties—are not all willing to sit at the same table. And pretending that settlements is the issue is naïve and ultimately detrimental to the process.”

For Bowen and Hahn, the similarities between their positions on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were not surprising in light of a position paper written by Hahn and co-signed by Bowen outlining five points of support for Israel.

The points included support for the peace process, the annual $3 billion of U.S. security assistance to Israel and sanctions against Iran. It also included opposition to a unilaterally declared Palestinian state and a lengthy condemnation of “anti-Israel political rhetoric” that was focused on statements made by Winograd, who was, at that time, not yet a candidate in the race.

Hahn sent the letter to Bowen on Feb. 18, and Bowen signed the letter that same day, the LA Weekly reported. One week later, Winograd formally declared her candidacy.

On Wednesday evening, Winograd told The Jewish Journal that her opponents’ joint pro-Israel pledge was part of why she chose to run. “It definitely played a role. I was also concerned because I wasn’t hearing from either candidate that they were committed to voting against future war supplementals,” Winograd said, referring to bills that must be passed by Congress to continue funding the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Speaking before Wednesday’s debate, Hahn said she sent the letter to Bowen “to take the issue [of support for Israel] off the table.”

But Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant, said most political observers saw it as a move by Hahn to cut into Bowen’s base. “Most people believe that the Hahn campaign sent the letter to really get Winograd in the race, so that there would be two Westside Democrats in the race,” Hoffenblum said.

Winograd came as close as she did to winning the Democratic nomination in 2010, Hoffenblum said, because she was running against Harman. In May’s special election, however, “the anti-Harman vote has many places to go,” he said.

At Wednesday’s debate, Nolan asked the candidates whether Harman, who supported the war in Iraq and defended the use of wiretapping without a warrant, was too moderate for her district, which stretches from Venice to San Pedro.

Adler, who called Harman’s work in defense and intelligence “very, very commendable,” couldn’t be said to be an anti-Harmanite. Bowen, however, took on Harman’s legacy when she said she didn’t think it was overly burdensome to require the federal government to get a warrant before tapping a person’s phones. Hahn distinguished herself from Harman by pointing to her opposition in the L.A. City Council to the war in Iraq.

“The question is does she [Winograd] play the spoiler, and does she take enough votes away from Bowen so that a Republican comes in second,” Hoffenblum said.

As for Adler, Hoffenblum said he was facing an uphill battle. “He’s unknown,” Hoffenblum said. “He’s going to have to raise a ton of money.”

With nothing else on the ballot, voter turnout is expected to be low for this special election. And with 16 candidates running, it’s hard to imagine a single candidate winning an outright majority. In that likely scenario, the top two vote-getters would face off in a second round of voting, to be held on July 12.

No matter who wins the special election, a brand-new Citizen’s Redistricting Commission is already working to redraw the lines of the congressional districts across the state.

“All of these people are running in a district that won’t exist in 2012,” Hoffenblum said.