Pundits on the right were quick to celebrate the first casualty of the war between the dovish J Street and the hawkish Emergency Committee for Israel, but it is not clear that Joe Sestak did indeed retract his support for J Street’s congressional letter calling for easing the Gaza blockade.
Sestak has been the prime target of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a recently formed conservative group that is putting out ads depicting candidates who signed the letter as not being supportive of Israel. The group has already made major media purchases in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Sestak, a Democrat running for the Pennsylvania Senate seat currently held by Arlen Specter, who will be retiring, has been under attack for signing the Gaza letter. He has also been criticized for refusing to join a letter regarding Iran sanctions and for his addressing an event sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which some critics charge is linked to terrorism—a charge the group strongly denies. So far the Sestak campaign, assisted by ads put out by the dovish lobby J Street, has been fighting back and refusing to backtrack on his signing of the letter.
The letter, originally signed by 54 members of Congress called for loosening the Israeli siege on the Hama-controlled Gaza Strip in order to allow more freedom in movements of goods and people. It was supported, although not sponsored, by J Street.
But on Thursday, Sestak seemed to change his tone during a meeting with members of the Orthodox Union. According to an O.U. press release, Sestak said in the meeting that he had second thoughts about signing the letter. “The one Israel related action he [Sestak] regretted was signing on to the infamous “Gaza 54” letter and if he had to do it over he would have sent an individual letter,” the press release stated.
Did Sestak really change?
J Street, which has endorsed Sestak through its sister-organization J StreetPAC, claims there is no change. Sestak, said Hadar Susskind, did not change his views on Gaza, only the way they were delivered.
“We urge members of Congress all the time to send their own letters on the complex, nuanced issues that come up related to Israel and the Middle East,” Suskind said. “Our focus is on the policy, not the vehicle.”
The O.U. seems to agree. Howie Beigelman, the group’s deputy director of public policy said he did not understand Sestak’s remarks as a retraction. “He spoke about the way it was done, not about his policy,” Beigelman said.
Sestak’s campaign did not return calls for comments on this issue.
The Emergency Committee has not yet reacted to Sestak’s remarks. An official with the group said they are waiting to view the video recording of Sestak’s speech in full before commenting.