Retired Navy Adm. Joe Sestak, who kicked off his campaign for the U.S. Senate in early March by walking 422 miles across the state of Pennsylvania, addressed foreign policy issues at a tiny coffee house in East Liberty last Thursday.
Sestak, a Democrat who served two terms in Congress before narrowly losing a bid for the Senate to Pat Toomey in 2010, underscored his support for the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran while addressing a modest but engaged crowd at Zeke’s Coffee on Penn Avenue.
Backing the president’s commitment to negotiate a deal with Iran to slow down its nuclear capabilities, Sestak predicted that effort could eventually be recognized as a crowning achievement of the Obama administration.
“I have felt that if the president is successful — and we do not know that yet — that Iran may be one of the more successful, if not the most successful, foreign [policy] accomplishments that he might have,” Sestak said.
So far, negotiations have bought the world at least another year of security, he posited.
“Iran was one month from having a fissile material to build a bomb because it enriched its 4 percent uranium up to 23 percent,” Sestak noted. “It takes a year to do that, and lots of extra centrifuges. But during these negotiations, those centrifuges have been destroyed and that uranium has been degraded to 4 percent. We are already a year more secure.”
While noting that gaining one year of security is not “good enough,” he cautioned that military action should be postponed until a negotiated solution is given time to work.
Sestak went on to condemn as “reckless” Toomey and the other 46 Republican senators who sent a letter to leaders in Tehran explaining that any deal reached by the Obama administration could be revoked by the next president.
As of now, Sestak is the only Pennsylvania Democrat who has declared his candidacy in the 2016 Senate race, a contest widely perceived by Democrats as a chance to help that party regain the majority it lost last fall. Pundits have speculated that other Democrats may throw their hats in the ring to challenge Sestak. Possible primary challengers might include Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia and former Rep. Chris Carney; none of those politicians has yet committed to run.
Jewish voters favored Sestak in his 2010 race against Toomey.
A J Street-sponsored poll found that 71 percent of Jews backed Sestak in that election, while a poll sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition found that 62 percent of Jewish voters backed Sestak. Sestak came under fire from some Jewish groups because he signed onto a letter earlier that year urging Israel and Egypt to lift their blockades of Gaza and because he spoke at a 2007 event benefiting the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that has controversial roots and that frequently condemns Israel. Just last summer, CAIR actively encouraged its supporters to lobby government officials to end aid to Israel during its Operation Protective Edge.
Sestak defended his appearance at the CAIR event by noting that he did not speak during the fundraiser itself, but at an event prior to the fundraiser in a different location; that other politicians, including then-Gov. Ed Rendell and state Sen. Andy Dinniman were also at that event; and that he was not knowledgeable about CAIR at the time.
“I didn’t know who CAIR was,” Sestak told The Chronicle in an interview. “It was put on my schedule by a new person of the Muslim faith who was on my staff.”
Although Sestak said he was “warned not to talk to them,” he thought it important to attend the event so that he could admonish the group to “condemn terrorism by name.”
“My choice was to go speak truth to power,” he said. “I would still speak to CAIR. How can you not speak and say, ‘You’re doing wrong here?’”
While Sestak emphasized that addressing CAIR was “the right thing to do at the moment,” he said that he declined to speak to the organization again when invited.
“But I’d have to make that assessment [if invited again]. … There is a lot of harm in the world because people don’t speak together.”
During the 2007 banquet, CAIR’s national board chairman Parvez Ahmed praised Sestak for “having the moral fiber to speak to his Muslim constituents despite being demonized and vilified
by the right-wing media and pro-
Israel extremists,” according to a CAIR news release.
Sestak defended his signing on to the letter urging Israel and Egypt to lift their Gaza blockades, by noting, “We asked to have humanitarian food go [to] the children.”
Sestak told The Chronicle that he is a strong supporter of Israel and that he has been there many times, adding that he is a proponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He criticized the Obama administration for insisting on a cessation of Israeli settlement building as a condition to a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians and added that it was the responsibility of the United States “to find a partner that can be credible on the Palestinian side, and work judiciously to bring them together.”
He disagrees with the assessment of the dangers of Iran that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu presented in his March 3 address to Congress.
“I do not agree that we have time to continue [negotiations] and we have the means to know whether they are getting close or not to … a nuclear weapons program,” Sestak told the group gathered at Zeke’s Coffee. “I think the president is correct on his due course of action. And I think the decision to go to war is both for our security and Israel’s.”
In light of recent comments coming from the White House indicating that the United States might reassess its relationship with the Jewish state as a result of a pre-election comment by Netanyahu that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch — a statement he dialed back following his election — Sestak said that a single statement should not unwind a longstanding relationship.
“These relationships we have with longstanding allies — not just coalition partners of the moment like you can get with some of these Arab nations — those have to be sustained,” Sestak said. “To have someone reassess a relationship based on a comment is not correct.”
Obama and Netanyahu must work to regain mutual trust, he said.
“My longstanding support for Israel is resolute and second to none,” he averred. “Who are we going to partner with? Syria?”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.