Since September 11, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has experienced something of an American renaissance. He has become a regular on the Fox News Channel and CNN, and he testified before the House Government Reform Committee. His book, Fighting Terrorism, has suddenly appeared on best-seller lists across the country. Nonetheless, on November 2 Bibi found time to break away from the TV and lecture circuit to head to Manchester, New Hampshire, for a local town-hall meeting at St. Anselm, a 2,000-student Catholic college.
Netanyahu didn't trek to New Hampshire just to talk terrorism. He went to boost the reelection chances of Republican Senator Bob Smith, who is fending off a primary challenge from John E. Sununu. Sununu is the son of George H.W.'s chief of staff and is the only ethnic Palestinian in Congress, and Netanyahu would like to keep Sununu's anti-Israel voting record out of the Senate. Smith, for his part, hopes to use Sununu's pro-Palestinian sympathies to paint him as soft on terrorism. As one of Smith's advisers told me, "People are just beginning to focus on how pro-Arab [Sununu] is and how naive his positions are on the terrorism issue." The Netanyahu visit is part of Smith's ongoing effort to get them to focus even more. Which means that until primary day next September, New Hampshire will be like Ramallah--another front in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Even before September 11 and the emergence of the terrorism issue, the primary promised to be ugly. Smith, with his combination of conservative zealotry and sheer buffoonery, has long been vulnerable. In 1995, for example, he used scissors and an anatomically correct doll to demonstrate partial-birth abortion on the Senate floor. Before a one-year anniversary celebration of the Contract with America, he fulminated against the GOP leadership for bringing Ringling Bros. elephants to the Capitol grounds, risking a stampede. (To prove his point, he brandished a photo of a bloody, rampaging elephant from Hawaii that had been shot 100 times.)
But it was Smith's 2000 presidential run that turnewd Republican leaders against him. After his quest for the GOP nomination fell embarrassingly flat, he bolted to the U.S. Taxpayers Party--but not before delivering a lengthy farewell tirade on the Senate floor. "Maybe [the Republicans are] a party in the sense of wearing hats and blowing whistles, but it's not a party that means anything," he fumed. Melodrama quickly turned to farce, however: Just four months after his defection, Smith was enticed back into the GOP fold with an offer to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Now Smith is paying the price for his apostasy. Even though he stands among the Senate's most resolute movement conservatives, the movement has turned its back on him. Last year Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform accorded Smith "hero" status for scoring 90 percent on its litmus test. But that hasn't stopped Norquist from raising money for Sununu and telling The Weekly Standard in April that "Bob Smith betrayed the conservative movement by whoring after the environmentalists.... The Republican Party and the conservative movement should say, 'Thank you very much; it's time for you to retire.'" And, while other prominent Republicans have been less bombastic, they've been just as clear. Over the summer Sununu received blessings and checks from such GOP eminences as Haley Barbour, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Susan Molinari. Even Smith's fellow senators, who as a rule protect their own, haven't lifted a finger for their colleague; two of them, Kit Bond and Richard Shelby, have even endorsed Sununu. And, according to a report last month in Roll Call, Smith was seen in a Capitol cloakroom chewing out Senator Bill Frist, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for the party's tepid support. One senator bluntly told the Capitol Hill newspaper, "I don't think [he] has a friend up here."
Things didn't look much better for Smith at home. A poll in May showed Sununu leading among registered New Hampshire voters by 21 percent. But, as New Hampshire Democratic political consultant Mark Longabaugh says of Smith, "He's tenacious, especially when he's down." And, on September 11, Smith found an issue with legs: terrorism. "After the attacks, he really found his voice," says John McLaughlin, Smith's pollster.
Unfortunately for Sununu, his past voting record leaves him vulnerable to Smith's attacks. Sununu has been one of the Palestinian Authority's most reliable allies in Congress, even voting against a 1999 resolution that urged the PA to tamp down violence. That same year he opposed a resolution condemning efforts by the Palestinians (including Hamas and Hezbollah) to justify attacks against Israel with the Geneva Convention. And he voted against a resolution imploring the State Department to demand information from Lebanon and Syria about the whereabouts of Israeli MIAs. In other words, he's following in his father's footsteps. Among the nation's governors, only the senior Sununu refused to endorse a 1986 proclamation condemning the infamous UN resolution equating Zionism and racism. And when, as Bush chief of staff, Sununu took heat for flying military jets to dental visits and ski trips, he attributed the criticism to the fact that he "is a second-generation Lebanese-American who is not fully supportive of Israel's demands."
True to form, Smith's attacks have not been subtle, and some have been outlandish. One Smith supporter sent me an overwrought fact sheet entitled, "JOHN E. SUNUNU: A PATTERN OF SUPPORT FOR RADICAL ANTI ISRAEL CAUSES FOUNDED BY RADICAL ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS." Smith allies have even quietly accused Sununu's pollster, Lebanese-American John Zogby, of inflating his client's poll numbers in order to promote a pro-Arab agenda. (As if all pollsters didn't inflate their candidates' numbers for a much more universal reason: to make it look like they have momentum and, thus, help them win.)
Smith is also introducing legislation aimed at highlighting Sununu's soft-on-terrorism record. Whereas Sununu has championed the repeal of secret evidence in immigration proceedings against suspected terrorists, Smith is now pushing something called the Alien Terrorist Removal Court, which will grease the deportation process. And one of Smith's advisers, Bill Greiner, says that Smith will soon introduce a resolution chastising Lebanon for failing to freeze terrorist assets--a direct shot at the Sununu family homeland. (The Sununus are ethnic Palestinian, but hail from Lebanon.)
And Smith isn't only using the terrorism issue to rack up votes; he hopes it will reap campaign donations as well. Jewish Republican fund-raisers are planning events in Chicago, Miami, and New York. (Cosmetics scion Ron Lauder will host one.) "People are going to really got to bat for Bob," says one New York donor. According to the donor, he and his fellow Republican Jewish activists plan on warning the party that they won't cut checks for the National Republican Senatorial Committee account unless the party intervenes more aggressively on Smith's behalf.
Sununu has moved to inoculate himself--after the September 11 attacks, he quickly returned $750 in donations from unabashed Hamas enthusiast Abdurahman Alamoudi--and he insists that efforts to go after him on ethnic grounds will backfire. On October 22 Zogby gave an interview to the pro-Sununu Manchester Union Leader warning that anti-Arab smears would only create sympathy for Sununu. And if that message was too subtle, one of the paper's columnists, Bernadette Connolly, reinforced it a week later: "[Sununu] is not the type to get snookered by those who would take advantage of his ethnicity."
But Smith's new tack seems to be working, with Sununu's lead turning into a six-point deficit. "Bob Smith is finally starting to poll like a strong incumbent," his pollster John McLaughlin proudly boasts. But there's an irony to Smith's strategy. In 1996, when he first ran for reelection, Smith loudly condemned his Democratic opponent, Dick Swett, for relying on donations from places like New York and California. "It is not Mr. Swett who is raising money here," Smith told one local Rotary Club. "It is Tom Lantos"--the California congressman and Holocaust survivor who is also Swett's father-in-law. "If you see people running ads against me," Smith continued, "it is from people out of state." And lest anyone miss the Buchananesque subtext, the senator's erstwhile allies at the Union Leader were happy to explicitly connect "Big Daddy Lantos" to pro-Israel money, describing Lantos as "one of the strongest backers of Israel--if not the strongest--in Congress." The innuendo behind Smith's 1996 attack was ugly and unfair. Now, Sununu could well throw the "out of state" donations charge back in his face: Bob Smith, who's your big daddy now?
Franklin Foer is editor of The New Republic.