WASHINGTON – Since entering Congress together in 1996, Democratic congressmen Steve Rothman (NJ-9) and Bill Pascrell (NJ-8) have become natural allies. Both are former mayors who receive high marks from liberal advocacy groups. Both are strong supporters of President Barak Obama’s legislative agenda. And both have consistently voted for military aid to Israel.

But the loss of a congressional district in New Jersey to faster-growing states in the South and West will cost at least one of these men his job when they square off in a June 5 Democratic primary. In December, Rothman was forced into a Republican-leaning district by New Jersey’s redistricting commission and opted not to challenge the incumbent. Instead, he and Pascrell are vying for the same seat in New Jersey’s redrawn 9th District, which contains parts of Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties.

New Jersey’s 9th is also one of the nation’s most expensive media markets and contains a sizeable Jewish population. Not surprisingly, the two men’s records and support for Israel has become a major campaign issue.

New Jersey’s 9th is one of the nation’s most expensive media markets and has a sizeable Jewish population

Leading members of the pro-Israel community believe the biggest daylight between the candidates’ voting records can be found on the Israel issue. Rothman’s supporters acknowledge Pascrell’s dozens of pro-Israel votes over the years, but describe Rothman as “not just a supporter, but a champion” of the Jewish State.

“From his positions on the Defense and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees, Rep. Rothman has been a leader in securing funds for missile defense and military assistance to Israel,” says New Jersey resident and former AIPAC President Lonny Kaplan.

Neither AIPAC nor the more hawkish Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) officially rates or endorses candidates, but their affection for Rothman is evident.

Josh London, a senior ZOA official, calls Rothman a “no-nonsense, pro-Israel leader” who has “championed US-Israel cooperation in all areas, including energy, security, and defense.” London also praises Rothman’s focus in calling attention to Palestinian hatred and incitement against Jews and Israel.

On close inspection of more than 80 pro-Israel congressional actions undertaken since 1997, both men have identical records approximately half of the time, meaning their votes and the letters they signed were in lockstep with the pro-Israel community. On a dozen occasions, they both supported a pro-Israel measure on which Rothman was a co-sponsor and Pascrell was not. And, on another 18 occasions, Pascrell broke with Rothman over an issue endorsed by the pro-Israel community.

The most controversial of the latter was Pascrell’s signing of the so-called “Gaza 54” letter in January 2010 — pushed by the left-leaning group J Street — urging Obama to put pressure on Israel and Egypt to ease the Gaza blockade.

Sean Darcy, the Pascrell campaign spokesman, said the congressman “believes that support for Israel’s right to defend itself and a concern for the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip are not mutually exclusive.”

“At the time, Congressman Pascrell agreed that certain aspects of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, including restrictions of certain types of food and medicines, were counterproductive to that goal and hurt ordinary Gazans far more than the terrorists in Hamas,” he said.

Rothman’s communications director, Aaron Keyak, says his boss didn’t sign the letter because it “wrongfully drew a moral equivalence between Israel protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks and the Gazans who were shielding and providing aid and comfort to the terrorists launching those attacks.”

One pro-Israel insider calls the June 5 primary “the most important race in the pro-Israel community during this election cycle.”

One pro-Israel insider calls the June 5 primary ‘the most important race in the pro-Israel community during this election cycle’

Ironically, the Israel issue isn’t likely to go away after that date. Recently, the New Jersey Standard reported that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who lives in New Jersey’s 9th District, declared his intention to run for the congressional seat as a Republican.

In The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Boteach argued that Obama “reversed course on his unfair pressure on Israel” because of the “shellacking” Democrats took in the 2010 midterm elections. Boteach promised to be “Israel’s staunchest supporter in the United States Congress.”

The last time voters in New Jersey’s 9th District voted for a Republican was 1982. Despite the redrawn lines, it remains a staunchly Democratic district.