Democrats Put on Defensive by G.O.P.'s Israel Policy

For Immediate Release:

August 2, 2003

Contact:SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 — In the battle for Jewish votes, Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, undoubtedly scored a few points this week when, during a speech to members of the Israeli parliament, he proclaimed himself "an Israeli at heart."

Now it is the Democrats' turn.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip and one of Israel's strongest supporters in Congress, will lead a Democratic delegation of 29 House members — including 12 freshmen lawmakers — to Israel on Saturday, carrying a more moderate message than Mr. DeLay but with much the same purpose: to court Jewish voters at home.

Like Mr. DeLay, Mr. Hoyer and his group plan to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, as well as with members of the Israeli parliament. They also hope to see the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, known to his friends as Abu Mazen. "We'd like to get a feel of the man," he said.

But while Mr. DeLay, departing from the Bush administration, said he "can't imagine in the near future that a Palestinian state could ever happen," Mr. Hoyer said he was hopeful that it could. The position puts him squarely in line behind President Bush.

"The policy of the United States is to see two states, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state living side by side, and I think that message will be conveyed, certainly, that there is the expectation that the realization of a Palestinian state will be part of the solution," Mr. Hoyer said in an interview today. "But there is a requirement, and that requirement, which is critical, is that the Palestinians, Abu Mazen and others bring terrorist activity to a close."

Those carefully chosen words are aimed as much at soothing American ears as those of Israelis. Mr. Hoyer's trip comes as Democrats are growing more concerned about maintaining their hold on Jewish voters, particularly in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida.

Some American Jews have grown increasingly uneasy with Congressional Democrats of late. When Mr. DeLay put forth a Congressional resolution expressing solidarity with Israel last year, a number of Democrats voted "no" or "present," irritating some Jewish leaders. And some Jews sensed an anti-Israeli tinge to the sentiments of Democrats who did not support President Bush on the war in Iraq. All the while, Republicans have aggressively wooed Jewish voters.

"There has been a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of the Republican Party to make inroads in the Jewish community," said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist. "Tom DeLay's trip to the Middle East is just the latest example of that effort."

Mr. Hoyer is well aware of that, and said he hoped his trip would reassure Jews "of the Democratic Party's strong commitment to Israel and to its survival and to its success."

Mr. DeLay's trip was an official visit, paid for by the taxpayers. Mr. Hoyer's will be paid for by the American Israeli Education Foundation, an arm of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. Howard Kohr, the committee's executive director, said he regarded it as a "significant statement" that 29 Democrats were willing to spend part of their August recess traveling to a land that most tourists have forsaken.

Soon, Republicans will have their chance. The committee is scheduled to take a Republican delegation to Israel at the end of the month.

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