Mideast conflict resonates in Georgia political races

The fighting in the Middle East is resonating half a world away in Georgia’s heated political races, as Republican candidates question their Democratic rivals’ support for Israel.

Democrat Jason Carter faces criticism from Gov. Nathan Deal and other Republicans over his grandfather’s controversial view on Hamas, the militant group at war with Israel, while Democratic Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn is pushing back against accusations that she doesn’t support Israel strongly enough.

The GOP contenders hope to cast their opponents as indecisive amid turmoil in the Middle East, even as they step up attempts to appeal to Jewish voters and evangelical Christians who hold Israel dear. Their Democratic opponents see it as a distraction from other pressing issues, and they question the governor’s own support for the Holy Land.

The political dispute may be little more than a blip in an election centered on issues closer to home, such as Georgia’s reawakening economy and the future of its public schools. But Republicans have been able to ruffle Democratic feathers by taking advantage of unscripted moments.

An ‘ill-concealed anti-Semitism’

Carter’s campaign has long recognized that his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, poses a unique challenge with Jewish voters, who make up a tiny fraction of the electorate but are an important fundraising source. The ex-president infuriated many of Israel’s supporters in 2006 when he compared the nation’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.

An editorial the ex-president co-wrote this month drew renewed attention on his views of the Middle East conflict. The elder Carter said in the piece that Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group in the U.S., should be treated as a legitimate political actor.

This was welcome news to the Deal campaign, which has sought to undermine Jason Carter on the issue since he entered the race last year. The governor recently returned from a trade mission to Israel and co-wrote his own editorial this month claiming that a divestiture movement targeting Israel “often masks an ill-concealed anti-Semitism.”

He called the former president’s column “inflammatory” and challenged his opponent to disavow it. Carter, who doesn’t want to answer for his grandfather every time he says something controversial, said Deal was trying to “deflect” attention from his policies. His campaign pointed to a white paper that said he would oppose sanctions and boycotts that “seek to isolate and delegitimize Israel.”

“I have been on the front page of the paper talking about the ways in which I disagree with my grandfather,” Carter said. “I believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, especially against Hamas’ terrorist actions. But the cornerstone of what the Georgia governor’s job is, is to make sure that we are pressing forward on the issues that confront the Georgia governor.”

Deal said his opponent didn’t go far enough and made clear Tuesday that he would continue to link Carter with his grandfather’s views.

“If he thinks that it’s something that doesn’t need to be talked about, I would suggest he divorce himself from his grandfather’s statements that are very critical of Israel,” Deal said, adding: “He’s taking money from his grandfather on one hand and then trying to disassociate himself from his grandfather on issues such as this.”

Democrats fired back by questioning Deal’s voting record on Israel when he was in Congress. Among his missed votes was a proposal to strengthen economic sanctions against Iran, the longtime Israeli adversary.

They also dug up more than a dozen letters promoting Israel’s cause that lacked Deal’s signature, including a 2005 letter urging the disarmament of Hamas signed by almost 300 lawmakers. Few, if any, of the letters sent to White House officials on behalf of the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby during Deal’s time in Congress bore his signature.

Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber called it a “laughable attempt to distract from President Carter’s radical views” and called on the younger Carter to return donations he raised with his grandfather’s help.

‘Friend or foe’

Republican Senate candidate David Perdue hopped onto Jimmy Carter’s comments as well by saying he was “offended” by the remarks, while trying to tie Nunn to them as well.

“Frankly, the United States should be giving Israel all the support it can to defend itself,” Perdue said.

A series of internal Nunn campaign memos that became public last month also play into the attack. One memo referred to Jewish supporters as a “tremendous financial opportunity” but one that might rely on her position on Israel. It also outlined possible attacks that link Nunn’s charity, Points of Light, to Hamas through several degrees of separation.

(Points of Light validated Islamic Relief USA as one of thousands of legitimate charities where eBay users could channel donations. Its overseas affiliate, Islamic Relief Worldwide, has been accused by Israel of working with Hamas — a charge the charity denies.)

Both points have already yielded attacks from conservative groups. The Ending Spending Action Fund took out a full-page ad in the Atlanta Jewish Times questioning whether Nunn is a “friend or foe.” It also unleashed a TV ad campaign focusing on the charity’s link to Hamas.

Nunn called it a “ridiculous accusation” that amounted to an attack against another former president.

“It is preposterous to think that an organization that was founded by President George H.W. Bush and that is one of the most respected nonprofits in the country, has been giving money to terrorists,” she said.

Nunn’s backers in the Jewish community showed little concern.

“They’re making a mountain from a molehill,” said Steve Labovitz, one of the Jewish supporters mentioned in Nunn’s memo.

Swaying the electorate

Foreign policy typically does not weigh in political campaigns as much as kitchen-table issues, though the increasingly volatile world — from Gaza to Iraq to Ukraine — has put the issue closer to the front of voters’ minds.

In an automated poll of Georgia voters conducted last weekend by Hicks Evaluation Group and the Truman National Security Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to strengthening U.S. national security,” nearly 17 percent of respondents rated national security as their top concern. It ranked behind job creation, health care and immigration — the other three listed options.

Republicans are more interested in national security, according to the poll. Jeff Schoenberg, of the Truman Center, said this gives Nunn in particular an opening to talk more about foreign policy and mirror her father, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, who was known for hawkish views.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based outside Washington, said “the appearance of worldwide chaos” has elevated foreign policy as an election issue to levels not seen since 2006, when Democrats rode a wave of dissatisfaction with the Iraq war. He expects it to figure more prominently in the Senate race than in the battle for the Governor’s Mansion.

“Foreign policy has a direct linkage to actions a senator might take,” Ayres said. “It’s more of a three-bank shot when it comes to a governor’s race.”

Orit Sklar, a prominent Jewish conservative in Atlanta, said the candidates’ views on the Israeli conflict offer valuable insight on both their foreign and domestic policies. She said if Nunn and Carter can’t prove they “stand with the only Jewish, democratic state in the Middle East in times of calm and war,” they will lose the trust of voters.

Others, though, have questioned why the governor, in particular, has seized on the issue.

“It’s a critical issue for all potential Georgia governors, given the underground Hamas fortress in Virginia-Highland,” cracked Ford Vox, an Atlanta physician who supports Carter.

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Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this article.