JERUSALEM — U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell’s victory in June’s Democratic primary is making waves in Israel.
An anonymously funded group called “iVoteIsrael” is using the incumbent lawmakers’ victory in Dist. 9 over Rep. Steven Rothman – a staunch pro-Israel member of Congress who was all but redistricted out of his own seat – in a series of negative ads meant to encourage Americans living in Israel to vote in U.S. elections come November.
Until last week, the bipartisan campaign focused on positive messages, telling people that their vote can make a difference and reminding them how close the 2000 presidential election was.
But now the campaign has shifted to negative ads suggesting the consequences of not voting – and asserting that Pascrell’s win was a victory for Arab-American interests over those of the pro-Israel lobby.
“Think Congress will always be reliably pro-Israel?” a video ad available on YouTube, says. “Think again. On June 5, radical anti-Israel elements of the New Jersey Arab community flexed their political muscle. They leveled blatantly anti-Israel charges and ousted a longtime defender of Israel from office.”
The ad shows a campaign poster for Pascrell written in Arabic and featuring him with Paterson Imam Muhammad Qatanani, a prominent leader in Paterson’s sizable Arab-American community. The iVoteIsrael ad notes that that an Israeli court convicted him of being a member of Hamas, although Qatanani has denied the charges. In 2008 he was granted permanent residency by a U.S. immigration judge, who called the charges against the imam “unreliable.”
Pascrell and others, including Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, have defended Qatanani. Pascrell has earned support from pro-Israel individuals and PACs, although he faced criticism from some pro-Israel groups for a letter in January 2010 urging an easing of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In an accompanying news release, iVoteIsrael also repeated a boast by the NJ Arab-American Forum that it “raised $100,000 for Rep. Pascrell, registered more than 1,000 voters, and mobilized another 10,000 in record-breaking voter registrations of Muslims and Arabs in New Jersey.”
iVoteIsrael spokesman Aron Shaviv stressed that the organization had no contact with Pascrell's Republican challenger, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. He said the Pascrell ad was one of several that will focus on Congressional and Senate contests across the U.S.
“Pascrell is not really the subject of the ad,” Shaviv said. “The ad was intended to show that there are anti-Israel voters being mobilized and the need for us to be a counter-weight to that. We also hope voters from New Jersey in Israel will talk to their family back home and encourage them to frame the debate of the presidential election on Israel issues.”
iVoteIsrael officials estimated that 16 to 17 percent of U.S. voters in Israel are from New Jersey.
While iVoteIsrael is targeting all eligible American voters in Israel, much of its attention has focused on voters from so-called swing states, including Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that can impact the presidential election.
“Focusing on races like the one in New Jersey makes voters realize that their vote can make a difference on the Congressional level as well as the presidential level,” Shaviv said. “For us it is a way of engaging voters in a tangible way and encouraging them to participate. The point of that video was to make the voters realize they could have made a difference.”
Organizers describe iVoteIsrael as “an issue-based campaign, expressing their desire to see a Congress and administration who will support and stand by Israel in absolute commitment to its safety, security and right to self-defense, without endorsing any specific candidate or party.”
The project does not disclose its donors. Shaviv said the project is funded by contributions raised in the United States and online, mainly in small increments from individuals and foundations within the Jewish and Christian communities.
But some have questioned the campaign's motives and suggested that the bulk of its funding has come from an anonymous Republican millionaire who is aware that polls have shown that Israelis in general and Americans in Israel in particular have negative feelings for U.S. President Barack Obama.
On Monday, the Republican Jewish Coalition announced that it is sending a team to Israel next week to campaign for Mitt Romney among American voters there. According to the RJC release, the “RJC is supporting the efforts of iVoteIsrael (ivoteisrael.com) and Republicans Abroad Israel (www.republicansabroad.org.il).”
The iVoteIsrael campaign has repeatedly denied that its funding comes from Republicans and that its goal is to help defeat Obama.
The organization calims there are some 150,000 Americans living in the Jewish state eligible to register for absentee ballots.
In a poll of 744 eligible American voters in Israel sponsored by iVoteIsrael and conducted by the Shvakim Panorama company, Romney received 32.3%, compared to Obama with 14.7%. The poll found 27.2 percent undecided. The remaining respondents did not provide an answer. Among the 27.2% undecided, 66% said they viewed Obama unfavorably and 19.5% favorably, while 25.6% viewed Romney favorably and 17.3% unfavorably.
Shaviv insisted that the objective of the campaign is simply to get out the vote and help Israel.
“We just encourage people when they go to the polls to think about what candidate is best for Israel and tell their family in the US to factor Israel's future into how they decide how to vote,” he said.
UPDATE: Boteach didn't respond to NJJN's request for comment on the iVoteIsrael campaign before deadline, but emailed a statement on July 5. “We cannot comment on the efforts of others. As far as our own activities are concerned, I have made it clear that we will run a values-based campaign,” wrote Boteach.
Boteach also repeated his crticism of Pascrell for signing the congressional letter on Gaza, calling it “one of the most vicious attacks on the Jewish state,” and challenged Pascrell to explain his support for Qatanani.