Israel Groups Fight It Out in Pennsylvania

J Street, the left-leaning, pro-peace Israel lobbying/political group that came onto the scene in 2008 as a counterweight to the conservative Israel lobby, is up on the air with its second TV ad ever, defending Rep. Joe Sestak from claims of anti-Israel ties in his Pennsylvania Senate race against former Club for Growth President Pat Toomey.

The ad will air in major Pennsylvania media markets over the next two weeks, and it counters an attack ad by a new conservative group headed by William Kristol and Gary Bauer, called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which points out that Sestak "raised money for" CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations) and that the group has been referred to as having ties with Hamas.

Here the ad from J Street's political action committee 501(c)(4) arm, pointing out Sestak's support for Israel aid and for a two-state solution, which J Street backs:

And here's the ad from ECI. The group launched last Monday; so far, the Sestak ad is all it has done. ECI is organized as a 501(c)(4), which means it doesn't have to disclose its funding and will be limited on its paid-media campaigns closer to Election Day.

The messy bits of fact and intrigue: Sestak's campaign counsel sent a letter to Comcast asking that it stop airing ECI's ad, on the grounds that the ad was misleading. Sestak didn't help raise money for CAIR, the campaign said: he merely spoke at a banquet that didn't involve fundraising, and he's never solicited donations for the group. CAIR wasn't referred to as a "front group for Hamas" by the FBI writ large, Sestak's counsel said, just by one FBI agent testifying in one court case. ECI then penned a reply, backing up the factualities and noting that Sestak keynoted a "banquet and fundraiser" event for CAIR.

(Interesting note: Toomey is a fiscal conservative, and fiscal conservatives don't like foreign aid. So he actually voted against billions in foreign aid to Israel while a member of the House, when it came up in several appropriations bills covering all foreign aid for separate fiscal years. Sestak, as the J Street ad points out, has voted for foreign aid appropriations bills.)

This exchange between ECI and J Street may be a blueprint for campaign battles over Israel policy in the coming midterms. J Street has said that part of its mission is to defend political candidates from pressure to take a hard line on Israel policy. They've begun raising money, donating, and spending it on behalf of candidates. The traditional Israel lobbying powerhouse, AIPAC, which J Street confronts on ideological grounds, doesn't raise, donate, and spend money like J Street does, so the rightward (or perhaps just less conditional) pro-Israel crowd will likely get involved in campaigns through other groups, like ECI. ECI says it plans to get involved in other races, but it won't discuss future activity beyond that; J Street, if it lives up to its stated goals, will be there to meet them.

It will be had to tell who's winning the campaign-year Israel battle. As a 501(c)(4), ECI doesn't have to disclose how much money it has or where it comes from. While J Street's PAC does, J Street's other arms (a 501(c)(4) and a 501(c)(3)) don't, and the group doesn't say how much it's spending on its ad campaigns.* We'll have to find out through Federal Election Commission reports.

Nonetheless, campaign skirmishes over stances on Israel are something to watch this election season, as J Street looks to make a move and cement the momentum it's gained in the last two years, and as groups like ECI look to maintain Congress's traditionally staunch, unconditional backing of Israel and its government.

*As noted above in a strikethrough correction, J Street's ad was purchased through its 501(c)(4) arm.