The White House is treating Jerusalem and the West Bank as the same issue, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter said, which would account, at least in part, for the recent tension between the two countries.
“The White House doesn’t understand the difference between Jerusalem and the West Bank,” Specter said last week during an April 1 meeting with The Chronicle staff. “We Jews have been building in Jerusalem for thousands of years, and we’re not about to stop now.”
He later added that the administration appears to be learning fast that there is difference.
Specter, who is up for reelection this year, also addressed charges from his Democratic rival, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak. He denied his jump to the Democratic Party last year, after 44 years as a Republican, made a measurable impact on his Jewish support, and cautioned the public to give the new health care reform act enough time to show it can work.
Echoing a March 16 speech he gave on the Senate floor, Specter suggested the dust-up over Israel’s announcement of new housing construction in east Jerusalem is being whipped out of proportion and cautioned all sides to keep their cool.
In that same speech, Specter appeared to suggest that the Obama administration had assurances from Israel that nothing would be done about Jerusalem that would embarrass Biden during his visit.
“Another report said U.S. officials extracted a secret promise from Prime Minister Netanyahu not to allow provocative steps in East Jerusalem,” he said at the time.
But in his Chronicle meeting, Specter said it wasn’t clear what kind of promises were made. “The facts are very muddied.”
He gently chided Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for labeling as an “insult” Israel’s announcement last month of 1,600 new Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem.
“The secretary’s comments could have been more diplomatic,” he said.
He also took aim at Sestak for signing a congressional letter, along with 53 other House Democrats, asking the president to press Israel to relax its economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, saying the Jewish community deserves an (“explanation.”)
The letter said, “the current blockade has severely impeded the ability of aid agencies to do their work to relieve suffering.”
“We recognize that the Israeli government has imposed restrictions on Gaza out of a legitimate and keenly felt fear of terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups,” the letter said, noting also Egypt’s blockade of its border. “This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.”
But Specter said Israel is under attack from Gaza.
“You have Hamas in control of Gaza; they’re shelling southern Israel,” he said. “I wouldn’t given them aid and comfort.”
Turning to the May 16 primary, Specter defended his defection to the Democratic Party last year, noting that his positions were increasingly out of step with the ever more conservative Republicans. He said members of his old party were referring to him as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a label right-wing Republicans have placed on congressmen and candidates for Congress who they see as not sufficiently conservative.
But Specter doesn’t think his party switch will cost him significant support among Jewish voters. “I do not think I estranged myself,” he said. “Republicans who have backed me continue to back me.”
Pressed on that point, he wouldn’t say whether the switch has cost him some Jewish votes.
“I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to comment one way or the other,” he said. “In the Jewish community I always had tremendous support.”
The longest serving U.S. senator in state history with six terms, Specter, 80, eschewed retirement, saying he still has many projects in the pipeline he wants to see through.
He assailed Sestak for cherry picking his voting record, noting that he has taken more than 10,000 votes in his Senate career while noting that Sestak, a Montgomery County Democrat, has missed several votes.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)