It’s Israel — not the economy — stupid.
That’s emerging as one of the key mantras in Long Island’s 4th Congressional District race where a Republican Jewish candidate is hoping to win a rare open seat.
Although he’s running in a district that includes the heavily Jewish Five Towns, Former County legislator Bruce Blakeman faces an uphill battle. He’s running against Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a Democrat, to fill a congressional seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy. Polls show Blakeman trailing Rice by a double-digit margin.
The district is said to have the largest Jewish constituency in the nation — nearly 20 percent of voters are Jewish — and both candidates have worked hard to show their unwavering commitment to the Jewish state.
During last summer’s Gaza war, both candidates left the campaign trail to fly to Israel. And while campaigning in the Five Towns with Rice, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was heard telling shoppers that Rice, 49, is a “strong fighter for Israel and a strong fighter against terrorism.”
Blakeman, 59, a former presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature who represented the Five Towns from 1996 to 1999 and then served as commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has stressed his close ties to the local community as well as to Israel. In fact, a local Five Towns newspaper accompanied him on his recent trip to Israel, during which he became engaged to a woman whose family is from Israel.
“They are both serious candidates with strong political resumes,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.
Meanwhile, on the eastern end of Long Island Lee Zeldin, a second term state senator, is challenging incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop in the 1st Congressional District, which extends from Smithtown to the end of Suffolk County — the largest district in terms of square miles on Long Island. Zeldin, 34, tried unsuccessfully to unseat Bishop in 2008; Bishop, 64, is seeking his seventh term.
Both men hope to return a Republican Jewish presence to the House following the June primary defeat of Eric Cantor, who at the time was the House majority leader.
Levy pointed out that the 1st Congressional District is a “true swing district” that in the past has elected Republicans and even a Conservative. In 2010, Bishop squeaked to victory by just 593 votes.
“Zeldin is running against an incumbent who has been there a long time and could be vulnerable if people decide to opt for a change,” he said. “For the most part, people like their incumbents, but in a year in which people are not happy with the status quo, an incumbent could be vulnerable. …This race is the most negative you will see on Long Island. Negative ads always have an impact on the target but can also have an impact of the person who produces them.”
The 4th Congressional District is seen as a Democratic seat and polls show Rice with a wide lead over Blakeman in part because she is much more widely known. One poll last month found that more than half of those questioned were unfamiliar with Blakeman.
But Blakeman insists the race is now “neck and neck” and that a strong anti-Obama feeling among the electorate will sweep him to victory. He cited no polls to support that belief.
“My opponent supports [President Barak] Obama’s policies — every single one of them,” he insisted.
But in an interview, Rice distanced herself from Obama on a number of Middle East issues. For instance, although Secretary of State John Kerry said he wants to restart peace talks between the governments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice disagreed. Noting that Abbas’ Fatah party has formed a unity government with the terrorist Palestinian organization Hamas with which Israel fought a 50-day war in Gaza this summer, Rice said: “The Israelis should not be forced to negotiate with anyone involved with a terrorist organization. I don’t think Israel should be forced to negotiate under those conditions.”
Asked how she would react if Abbas cut ties with Hamas, Rice replied, “I would reassess the situation to see if it was really a break.”
She noted that she (as did Blakeman) visited Israel during the Gaza war.
“I must be a vocal supporter of Israel, regardless what people in my party are saying. There is a big pro-Israel constituency in my district and they will inform my opinion. I have political independence and will break away from the party” if necessary.
Rice also broke with the Obama administration on the issue of Iran and its quest for nuclear power, agreeing with Israel’s opposition to any agreement with Iran that would permit it to continue to enrich nuclear fuel, thereby keeping the materials needed to make nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration and five other world powers now negotiating with Iran are reportedly prepared to allow Iran to maintain a scaled back nuclear development program with safeguards in place to guard against Iran surreptitiously pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.
Blakeman said he favors “stricter sanctions” and a 90-day deadline by which Iran must dismantle their nuclear program otherwise “America should take military action and destroy Iran’s nuclear program.”
Blakeman said he agreed with Netanyahu’s claim that “ISIS is Hamas and Hamas is ISIS,” saying: “I believe Hamas is equally as dangerous as ISIS and that Hamas wants to destroy the Jewish state — and after that Western civilization as we know it.”
Asked about Abbas’ demand that Jews should be banned from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, he said they were “anti-Semitic, racist statements that show his true intentions — he wants a Middle East without Israel.
“A two-state solution is a fiction,” he continued. “There is nobody on the Palestinian side to negotiate with. Abbas has no control and Hamas would never agree to a Jewish state on its border.”
Zeldin agreed with Israel that Iran should not be allowed to have the capability of developing nuclear weapons. He disagreed that Israeli settlement building was the biggest obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace, calling the idea “complete nonsense,” saying that the settlements “have actually stabilized the region” and that Israel shouldn’t “give up land for a fictional peace.”
“I believe many of the elements fighting Israel will not stop until Israel is wiped off the map,” Zeldin said, adding that the U.S. should consider “eliminating foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority if it does not step up and root out extremist elements from within its ranks.”
He said it is “becoming increasingly clear that the Palestinian Authority has no will whatsoever to secure a long lasting peace accord with the State of Israel.
“Israel has made an important strategic decision to defend itself and destroy Hamas,” he said, adding that “since it is our strongest ally in the world, we should support Israel’s decision.”
Bishop, on the other hand, said he believes Netanyahu’s comparison of ISIS to Hamas “is a little extreme.”
“Hamas is a terrorist organization and their position on Israel and other matters is offensive — deeply so. But they exist in partnership with the Palestinian Authority to try to govern Gaza,” he said. “I am not a defender of Hamas and they need to disarm and recognize the State of Israel and cease terrorist atrocities.”
Asked about settlements, Bishop said he believes the “No. 1 obstacle to peace remains the refusal of Hamas to lay down its arms and recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Terror must stop. That is the No. 1 prerequisite for settling this dispute. Settlements is an issue that ought to get resolved in negotiations that hopefully will bring an end to this decades-long conflict.”
Asked whether he believes Abbas is a partner for peace in light of his claim at the United Nations that Israel committed “genocide” in the Gaza war, Bishop replied: “It was a pretty inflammatory statement, but if not with him, who then?”
“The only way to get this [conflict] settled is with negotiations and both sides that are willing to trade land for peace. … We can no longer allow the status quo to continue,” he added.
Regarding Iran, Bishop said: “I don’t think the U.S. said it would accept a nuclear-capable Iran. The purpose of the [talks] … is to see to it that Iran not have a nuclear program and that the program thus far be capped.”
All four candidates said that if elected they would work to close a loophole in the law that since 1979 has allowed the U.S. to pay millions in Social Security benefits to at least 38 of 66 suspected Nazi war criminals and SS guards who were forced from the U.S., an effort already begun by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who has already announced plans to introduce a bill that would address this problem.