WASHINGTON — Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz went on the offensive against tough primary challenger Tim Canova Monday, accusing him of harboring malleable postures on US policy toward the Jewish state, as an already heated contest between the two Democrats got cranked up to 11 over support for Israel.
“He’s made it clear that he can’t be counted on to stand with Israel,” she said in an interview with The Times of Israel Monday night. “He can be counted on to say whatever it is he thinks the audience he is in front of wants him to say.”
Wasserman Schultz, who was recently forced to resign as chair of the Democratic National Committee over hacked emails that revealed a preference for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary, thrust Israel into the campaign spotlight when she pounced on her opponent’s calls to disarm the Middle East, which she charged would put Israel’s security at risk, during a televised debate Sunday night.
The race is for Florida’s 23rd Congressional district, which comprises parts of Broward and Miami Dade County and is heavily Jewish.
Canova, a 56-year-old law professor and first-time political candidate, said he was not including Israel as a Middle East country needing to disarm. “I will say categorically right here that I was not referring to Israel,” he retorted. “I support disarmament in that region. I actually never singled out Israel whatsoever.”
To which Wasserman Schultz chortled: “Israel is the Middle East last time I checked.”
On Monday, she cited instances in which Canova articulated such a stance, and deemed his debate answer a shift motivated by political expediency.
“As he repeatedly said until he got caught, when I called him on it in our debate yesterday, my opponent supports full disarmament of the Middle East,” she said by telephone. “He said eight months ago, out of his own mouth; in online discussions, on Reddit; saying it in his campaign literature; saying it in public when he spoke to groups.
“And he never once qualified that he didn’t mean Israel,” she added. “Not once, until I called him on it yesterday.”
During an online Q&A session hosted by Reddit in January, Canova said, “I would favor a real disarmament effort for the entire region. US, European, Russian, and Chinese arms dealers are making enormous profits selling advanced weaponry and small arms to just about every country in the region. This has led to militarization and fear on all sides of these conflicts (including Arab-Israeli and Sunni-Shiite).”
Wasserman Schultz also cited his taking the same stance in his campaign literature and during a town hall meeting at the Sunny Isles Beach Democratic Club earlier this month.
Canova shot back Monday night by accusing the prominent Jewish congresswoman of trying to “exploit her religion” by attacking his pro-Israel bona fides.
“I stand by my views on Israeli security and the Iran Nuclear Deal, even though they have actually cost me support among left-wing Democrats and Independents,” he told The Times of Israel in an email.
“Wasserman Schultz knows no shame when it comes to trying to exploit her religion even while selling out Israeli security for her own political gain,” said Canova, who is not Jewish.
“It’s despicable that she tries to use her religion to suggest she’s a stronger supporter of Israel than me,” he added, and accused her of “cherry picking” his quotes.
He referenced a line from his website: “We should recognize that peace and security for Israel, the U.S., and the rest of the world is no longer possible without general disarmament and fundamental political and social reforms – specifically in Iran, Saudia Arabia [sic] and among other state sponsors of terror – throughout the Middle East.”
That line, however, was changed after Sunday night’s debate. It previously had said since the campaign’s launch, “We should recognize that peace and security for Israel, the U.S., and the rest of the world is no longer possible without general disarmament and fundamental political and social reforms throughout the Middle East” — with no mention of the Iranians or Saudis.
Canova, who briefly lived in Israel while on an academic fellowship with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies charged that Wasserman Schultz “lifted one line in my Issues statement about disarming radical Islamic states, and intentionally took it out of context, to imply that I would disarm Israel. Her suggestion is pathetic and reprehensible.”
Iran nuclear deal
Canova also claimed that his rival’s categorization of his Israel policies were an “attempt to deflect the constant criticism she has received for voting for the Iran Nuclear Deal.”
The former DNC chairwoman has criticized her adversary for lacking consistency on how to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, citing his publishing a campaign pamphlet linking himself to prominent members of Congress who opposed the deal — two of whom endorsed the incumbent — and other times he has said he supports “strict implementation” of the deal and that he’s not sure how he would have voted for it if her were in the House at the time.
‘My opponent has clearly viewed Israel as a political football for his own convenience’
“He has literally taken at least three positions on the Iran deal, and it depends who he’s talking to,” she said. “He either doesn’t have a clue, which, if you’re running for Congress, and you represent like I do that has a very staunch pro-Israel and Jewish community, you need to be certain. You need to know enough about the importance of supporting Israel’s security and the importance of a strong US-Israel relationship.”
“You need to know enough not to play games with Israel’s security, or politics with Israel’s security,” she added. “That’s the one thing that we have stressed as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle: that Israel cannot be a political football. And my opponent has clearly viewed Israel as a political football for his own convenience.”
The veteran Congresswoman took issue with Canova’s stance on settlements, referring to the Reddit Q&A where he said “I favor a freeze on settlements and the administration has to make this a big priority.”
Wasserman Schultz stated, “That’s very clearly indicating that he believes the we should pressure Israel on settlements,” she told The Times of Israel.
“Now that has not been the administration’s policy — not a Republican administration’s policy or a Democratic administration’s policy. We have a policy where we oppose the expansion of settlements, but not where we apply pressure on Israel. Israel has to be able to make her own decisions when it comes to her national security interests. Someone who knew something about this issue and was not trying to play politics with it would understand that.”
While longstanding US policy has not applied official pressure on the settlements, presidents have pushed for halting development. Former president George H.W. Bush once threatened to withhold US loan guarantees to Israel over the issue and president Barack Obama urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to place a moratorium on West Bank construction in 2009.
In an email Monday evening, Canova sought to clarify his position. “I do not support a freeze on existing settlements,” he said. “In other words, I have not opposed new construction in existing settlements. I have supported a freeze on new settlements.”
Wasserman Schultz, who described herself as a “stalwart supporter” of Israel’s security as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, described Canova as a “novice who doesn’t understand the implications of the policy positions that he’s taking.”