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'Israel should not have to give up any of its territory'

Hosted by GOP Jewish group, Dr. Oz makes case for becoming first-ever Muslim senator

Seeking to close in on J Street-backed Democratic frontrunner, Republican nominee says he won’t pressure Israel, mostly leaves Trump and far-right governor candidate unmentioned

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for US Senate in Pennsylvania, takes part in a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for US Senate in Pennsylvania, takes part in a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA — Mehmet Oz sought to present pro-Israel bona fides at a Philadelphia event for Republican Jewish voters Wednesday night, as the GOP candidate aims to close a widening gap in order to become the first-ever Muslim elected to the US Senate.

Recent surveys showed Democratic nominee Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman leading over the retired heart surgeon and TV personality by double digits after the two began the race neck and neck.

Oz was welcomed by a warm audience at a hotel ballroom where roughly 300 people waved signs reading, “Fetterman is the Squad,” “Jews for Oz,” “Pro-Israel, Pro-Oz and “Oz” in Hebrew and English.

The gathering was hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition and featured an onstage discussion between Oz and former US president Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“There’s no more important race in this country for us than right here in Pennsylvania,” said RJC executive director Matt Brooks at the start of the event, insisting that keeping the seat vacated by retired Republican Sen. Pat Toomey would be essential if Republicans want to win back the Senate.

Brooks also made a point of highlighting Oz’s background, declaring that “a Muslim, a Republican is going to be more pro-Israel than his Democratic opponent J Street John Fetterman.”

Mehmet Oz, right, a Republican candidate for US.Senate in Pennsylvania, shakes hands with former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, during a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Philadelphia, Aug. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The dovish Middle East lobby, along with the more centrist Democratic Majority for Israel, has endorsed Fetterman in the race against Oz, a dual American-Turkish national.

Friedman also expressed his excitement about Oz’s candidacy, saying he was “intrigued by the idea of a pro-Israel Muslim, a very pro-Israel Muslim.”

Oz seemed careful to clarify that he identifies as a “secular Muslim,” adding that “in Turkish and Islamic culture, there’s strong respect of Judeo-Christian values.”

“I’m proud as a secular Muslim to stand tall and say together with many others who are Christian and Jewish — and other Muslims as well — to say that Israel is a force for good that brings light into the world,” he declared to immediate applause.

Oz spent much of the event trying to paint his opponent as part of the “radical far left” and out of touch with most Pennsylvanians.

“John Fetterman is on the opposite side of just about every major issue from me, and that includes the future of Israel,” said the Republican nominee.

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, takes part in a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“He’s okay with the United States putting pressure on Israel to manage their internal affairs differently, in particular with how they manage the Palestinian population within Israel,” Oz continued. “I believe people should have the autonomy to make important decisions in their lives, like they do with their own personal health.”

Fetterman has made few public statements regarding his pro-Israel positions, but he told Jewish Insider in April that he opposes conditioning US aid to Israel.

It was unclear whether Oz was referring to Arab Israelis or Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, but he still appeared to suggest that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians beyond the Green Line was a domestic matter.

Oz argued that Israel should not “give up any of its territory” when Friedman asked the Republican candidate whether he opposed ceding West Bank land to the Palestinians.

The former Trump envoy and backer of the settlement movement went on to prime Oz on the issue of US aid to the Palestinians, arguing that it should cease, given the PA’s payments to those jailed on terror offenses and to the families of deceased attackers.

The US hasn’t given aid to the PA since 2014, instead donating to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees as well as to humanitarian causes in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The Trump administration cut all of that funding, but it has been restarted by US President Joe Biden, about which Oz said he would “reverse course.”

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, waves a towel after being introduced by wife Gisele Barreto Fetterman, right, during a rally in Erie, Pa., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Oz took a similar stance regarding the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden is seeking to reenter. Trump in 2018 withdrew from the agreement, which traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, and initiated a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran, which led to the Islamic Republic rapidly expanding its nuclear program in violation of the agreement.

“Why would we be giving back all the money that we had been able to block for so many years, allow them to then accelerate the weaponization of their armed forces and be able to clearly present a risk to Israel?” he asked. “I still don’t understand why Joe Biden would get us back into it. The hard part was getting out of it. Trump figured that out, and my opponent John Fetterman is embracing that idea.”

This was the only time that Oz mentioned the former president during the roughly one-hour event, in what appeared to be part of a broader effort to make inroads with more centrist voters. Trump endorsed Oz in the Republican primary. The latter made a point of arguing that Fetterman, who endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary, was a fringe figure in his party, and noted that he, Oz, had been engaging with conservative Democrats.

Receiving no mention at all was Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor Doug Mastriano, who has also fallen in the polls amid continuous revelations of his ties to far-right conspiracy theorists, including the Gab social media platform, on which the Tree of Life synagogue shooter posted antisemitic diatribes.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., May 17, 2022.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Brooks, the RJC director, acknowledged that his group had some “concerns” regarding Mastriano and would like to see him assure “the Jewish community [as to where] he stands as it relates to antisemitism.”

However, he insisted that voters are differentiating between the two races and that Oz will manage to eventually overtake Fetterman in the November election.

Fetterman has faced mounting questions regarding his health after he suffered a massive stroke days before the May Democratic primary. The lieutenant governor made one of his first public appearances since the life-threatening incident at a campaign rally last week, where media reports noted his ability to stand through the duration of his 11-minute speech.

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