‘You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist’

Within hours of the Saturday announcement that Democratic senator and former presidential candidate Joe Biden will be Barack Obama’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, a debate began among Jewish groups over his pro-Israel credentials.

While Biden is considered to be pro-Israel and is popular among Jewish voters who have heard of him, his views on Iran were the target of fierce criticism from a Republican Jewish group Saturday.

Biden’s selection made Obama’s presidential bid “an even greater gamble for the Jewish community,” read a statement released by Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks. “Throughout his career, Senator Biden has consistently been wrong on Iran, and his voting record on Israel has been inconsistent.”

Brooks cited Biden’s vote against the 1998 Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act, which was intended to punish companies or organizations that provided certain missile technologies to Iran. Biden was one of only four senators to oppose the bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

At the time, Biden explained to The New York Times that the bill would serve to weaken, rather than strengthen, the Clinton administration’s influence over Russia, whose arms sales with Iran were the target of the legislation.

“I’m trying to approach this from a practical point of view,” said Biden, since it was unrealistic for the Senate to expect then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin to have “his finger on” every one of his government’s agencies.

Biden also opposed the 2007 Senate resolution that labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. That resolution passed 76 to 22. His vote was based on his belief that the resolution could serve as a pretext for President George W. Bush to attack Iran, a move he adamantly opposed, he said.

“This is a mindless, mindless approach to dealing with proliferation,” he told The Boston Globe at the time, saying he had “zero faith” in Bush’s judgment on the issue.

“The Jewish community was already gravely concerned with Senator Obama’s naïve understanding of the Iranian threat,” Brooks claimed in the Saturday statement. “By selecting Senator Biden to join his ticket, voting for Senator Obama has now become an even greater risk.”

Jewish Democrats, meanwhile, believe Biden will be well-received among Jewish voters.

Steve Grossman, a former president of AIPAC and chair of the Democratic Party, said before the announcement of Biden’s selection that the Delaware senator would be popular among Jews because he’s “as well known an individual as any elected official in America” with a lengthy “track record” of backing the US-Israel relationship.

Others pointed to a March 2007 interview with the Jewish cable television network Shalom TV in which Biden expressed strong support for Israel, calling it “the single greatest strength America has in the Middle East” and emphatically declaring that “you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” Biden is Catholic.

In the interview, Biden also rejected claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was hurting America’s efforts in Iraq.

“When the Baker Commission filed its report saying peace in Israel is related to Iraq, I was the first in Congress to point out [that] if tomorrow peace broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, does anyone think there wouldn’t be a full-blown war with Iraq?” he said.

He further suggested that he understood American Jews’ concern for Israel. “There is this inextricable tie between culture, religion, [and] ethnicity that most people don’t fully understand – that is unique and so strong with Jews worldwide,” he said in the interview, which was conducted during his campaign in the Democratic primaries.

Biden’s selection was widely expected. He was endorsed by influential New York Times columnist David Brooks on Friday and topped the charts of the prediction market Web site InTrade for several days.

In a week that saw Obama’s lead over Republican rival John McCain drop to just 1.5 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, the choice of Biden was widely seen on Saturday as an attempt to fend off some of the harshest criticism leveled at Obama by his opponents – that he lacks experience, particularly in foreign policy, and that his views and political connections are too left-wing.

Biden is now in his 36th year in the Senate, making him the sixth most veteran senator currently serving. That legislative experience and repeated chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations are expected to be the political assets Obama will need to secure his unstable lead over McCain.

Biden is considered a centrist Democrat. His choice as a vice-presidential candidate was welcomed by the pro-choice organization NARAL, while his views on same-sex marriage led to a vote in favor of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which forbade defining same-sex unions as marriage. He supported the Iraq invasion of 2003, but has criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the war.
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Hilary Krieger contributed to this report from Washington