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Tom Campbell's Israel problem

The Republican Senate hopeful has come under fire from those who say he's not sufficiently supportive of the Jewish state and that he's soft on terrorism.

February 26, 2010

Tom Campbell, the moderate California Republican who hopes to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer in November, might make a good U.S. senator, or he might not. We don't know yet because the campaign is just getting underway, and subjects from healthcare to taxes to immigration to foreign policy will all be part of the debate.

But at the moment, the participants are stuck on one subject: Israel. Bloggers on the American Spectator and Commentary websites have attacked Campbell, saying his record as a congressman in the 1990s suggests he is insufficiently committed to the Jewish state -- and soft on terrorism. On Thursday, predictably, his GOP rivals weighed in. Carly Fiorina said she was "deeply troubled" by what she'd learned, and Chuck DeVore's campaign called Campbell "a friend to our foes."

This kind of thing is hardly unusual in American politics. Everyone knows that Israel is a third rail -- that Jewish, evangelical and Republican votes, among others, can turn on it. But the topic has become more polarized than ever. One extreme argues that politicians must support Israel unreservedly; the other points to a sinister "Israel lobby" with disproportionate influence that can make and break candidates at will.

We find both views simplistic. We support Israel and believe Israelis have a right to live free from missile attacks and suicide bombings. We abhor terrorism and don't want our leaders palling around with those who engage in it. But we are also convinced that it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Zionist. We don't believe that public officials must be rigidly loyal to a single playbook of "pro-Israel" positions.

Which brings us back to Campbell. Has he taken positions so out of line that, as Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said Thursday, they "send real alarms that this is someone who maybe doesn't . . . fully support a strong ongoing relationship with the state of Israel"? Do his beliefs make him an anti-Semite -- a nasty term that is already being thrown around? Is he hostile to Israel or soft on terrorism?

So far, we're not persuaded. Campbell has been accused by the Fiorina campaign of voting to "cut aid to Israel." But in fact, in one of the cases it cites, what he really did was vote against increasing foreign aid by $30 million (over and above the usual $3 billion he'd already voted for and the additional $900 million he'd already voted for). He objected to the increase, he says, because the money would have come from aid set aside for the world's neediest countries.

Similarly, Campbell has been attacked for saying that perhaps Jerusalem could serve as a "shared capital" for Israelis and Palestinians. Though that notion angers those who see Jerusalem as Israel's eternal undivided capital, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that "sharing" the city or redividing it is viewed by many as an essential element of an eventual peace.

The most disturbing allegations against Campbell involve his relationships with people who have ties to terrorism. He took a campaign contribution, for instance, from professor Sami Al-Arian, and later wrote a letter on his behalf when the University of South Florida tried to fire him. Al-Arian was subsequently arrested and pleaded guilty to aiding the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Campbell insists he knew nothing about Al-Arian's terrorist ties. They'd met, he says, after he opposed the treatment of Al-Arian's brother-in-law, who was in jail but had been denied the right to view the evidence against him. That's why Al-Arian contributed. Why did Campbell write the letter? He says he'd been told Al-Arian was being fired for his outspoken political opinions.

Is Campbell's explanation credible? His opponents think not, but we're inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was naive, perhaps, and gullible; he certainly shouldn't have written the letter before gathering the facts. But we find it hard to believe he is a "friend to our foes" who knowingly supported an Islamic Jihad operative.

This is an important subject, and no doubt more will come out in the days ahead. To those who are concerned we say: Ask him. Challenge him. His positions are fair game. So is his judgment. But let's not allow innuendo, hyperbole and cheap politics to drown out reasonable debate.

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