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How the Israel lobby flexed its muscle to destroy New Jersey freeholder candidacy of a Lebanese-American who had expressed sympathy for Palestinians

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This morning Adam Horowitz wrote a post about Congressman Bill Pascrell's journey to supporting relief for the people of Gaza in the House. The post prompted a journalist friend to send along the following story about a supporter of Pascrell who had political ambition in New Jersey. As the journalist says, "It's a textbook example of the intimidating impact that 'the lobby' has on politicians — an explanation of why we get 390-5 votes in the House on pro-Israel resolutions. I wrote this essay about it a while back, but obviously there's no place to publish it."

We asked if we could publish it here, the journalist said yes.

In 2004, Sami Merhi, a friend and fund-raiser for Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell, decided he wanted to run for freeholder (the county legislative board) in Passaic County. Merhi is respected businessman and was serving as president of the county-owned hospital’s Board of Directors. His background is Lebanese-Druze.

Then, as now, Passaic had a growing Arab/Muslim population, so running Merhi made sense for the county’s Democratic Party, which had been slow in reaching out to these new voters. It’s important to note that in New Jersey , county party organizations are still strong, like they once were everywhere. To be picked by the county party to run “on the line” in the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the actual primary.

Merhi seemed set to receive party support for one of the open freeholder seats. Pascrell, with wide influence in Passaic Democratic politics, was pushing him, and, well aware of the need to reach out to new voters, the county’s Democratic chairman, John Currie, was set to sign off on him. County politics is low profile stuff in New Jersey (and elsewhere), so none of this was controversial. He was just going to be another name on the ballot.

Then the other shoe dropped.

Before we get to that, though, some background may be helpful. New Jersey has a large, well-organized, and well-connected Jewish community. It’s one of the few states where the Jewish vote can swing an election. The Jewish community is also a major source of campaign cash, and money matters more in New Jersey than in most states: because the electorate is disengaged (more focused on New York or Philly or the world at large) and because there is no statewide television station, the ability to afford astronomically expensive advertising on New York or Philly television stations can determine a candidate’s fate. It’s not uncommon for a candidate for the state Senate in New Jersey to spend as much on his campaign as a candidate for U.S. Senate in another state.

All of this has powerfully affected the state’s political culture.

One of the required stops for any politician who wants to seek statewide office is Israel itself; trips are regularly organized for aspiring pols. (This is how Jim McGreevey, one year before he was elected governor, met future lover Golan Cipel, who was then the municipal spokesman for Rishon LeZion , Israel .) Members of Congress rush to put out the most hawkishly pro-Israel statements, and candidates bend over backward to pronounce their commitment to “ Israel ’s security.”

When he delivered his State of the State address a few weeks ago (at the height of the Gaza operation), Jon Corzine (if I saw right on TV) wore a lapel pin with the U.S. and Israeli flags.

In one telling episode in 2008, it was revealed that a Republican congressional candidate had once donated money to Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The actual explanation was simple and cynical. The Republican candidate was a defense contractor who’d wanted to ingratiate himself with his state’s man in Washington . But a politician can’t admit something like this, so he needed a cover story and came up with this: I gave to Lautenberg to thank him for his unwavering support of Israel, something we all agree on. That’s how monolithic the political community in New Jersey is on this issue.

Now, to bring it back to Merhi. When he decided to run for freeholder in ’04, it quickly became apparent that some Jewish leaders and activists in Passaic County and North Jersey essentially had Merhi on their watch list.

The reason: In April 2002, the New York Times had sent a reporter, Matthew Purdy, to Paterson (the anchor city of Passaic County) to gauge local Muslim and Arab reaction to Israel ’s just-launched assault on the West Bank . One of the featured interviews was with Merhi, whom Purdy met at a fundraising event he had organized for Congressman Pascrell.

Purdy’s article noted that Merhi’s own godson had died in the World Trade Center attacks just seven months earlier and quoted him calling the 9/11 hijackers “coldblooded murderers and things I can't say to you on paper. Crazy fanatics. They're as far from God and Islam as hell itself.”

Then, since the story was prompted by the West Bank incursion, Purdy asked Merhi whether he felt the same about Palestinian suicide bombers, whose actions were the justification for Israel ’s move. “I can’t see the comparison,” was his reply.

Purdy also included this characterization of Merhi’s opening remarks at the Pascrell fundraiser:

 But then Mr. Merhi rose to introduce Representative Pascrell. Speaking without notes, Mr. Merhi faulted American foreign policy for allowing Osama bin Laden to take root in Afghanistan, and denounced the long detention of Arab-Americans after Sept. 11.

Moving to the Middle East , he condemned '”violence, whether it's committed by a person, a group or a state,” and praised Israelis and Palestinians working for peace. Then he told the tale of the captured would-be bomber. '”Since I'm dead while I'm still alive,'' Mr. Merhi said the man told the Israelis, ''I decided I'm going to take you with me.”

When the story was originally published, Pascrell issued a statement distancing himself from Merhi’s quoted words: “I strongly disagree, and completely disassociate myself with, the reported remarks of Sami Merhi at an event last Friday evening.”

When word leaked in March ’04 that Currie, the county Democratic chairman, was ready to sign off on Merhi’s selection as a freeholder candidate, Jewish leaders in North Jersey were immediately alarmed and pushed back against the impending move. A story was leaked to the press, challenging Merhi’s selection on the grounds that his comments would make him “unelectable,” and threats were made to withhold money from Currie organization for the fall campaign.

Merhi tried to defend himself, but Currie had gotten the message – sticking with Merhi for a lowly job like freeholder would never be worth the public grief and lost money it would cause for him and his party. Initially, Pascrell stood by Merhi behind the scenes, but the decision had been made, and when Currie announced a few weeks later which candidates would run “on the line,” Merhi wasn’t one of them.

But Merhi didn’t give up. Even after his snub, he kept quiet and kept on raising money for the party. Currie advised him to “fix” his relationship with Jewish leaders before running again. Two years later, in the spring of 2006, there was another freeholder vacancy and Merhi tried again – once again with Pascrell’s backing. This time, he cleared the first hurdle – barely. In March 2006, Currie’s executive committee approved, by a vote of 13-9, Merhi for a place on the Democratic line in the June primary.

For any other candidate for county office in New Jersey , that would be the end of it – he’d then run “on the line” in the low turnout June primary, easily win the nomination, and run on the party’s ticket in the fall. For Merhi, in Democratic-friendly Passaic , winning that committee vote was practically the same as winning election in November; the heavy lifting was over.

But angry Jewish leaders wouldn’t accept the result and instead appealed for help to their most powerful allies in state politics, who dutifully complied.

Robert Menendez, who was then running for a full-term in the U.S. Senate and facing an expensive and highly-competitive race against a popular Republican (Tom Kean Jr.) in the fall, went to the media to pronounce Merhi’s ’02 quotes “very disturbing” and applied intense pressure on Currie to drop Merhi from the ticket.

Corzine announced that he wouldn’t support Merhi, even if he were the Democratic nominee in the fall.

Pascrell was told that his fundraising would dry up and that he’d face a well-funded challenger if the Merhi decision stuck.

In an almost unheard of move, Currie’s executive committee reconvened a week later. They heard an earnest plea from Merhi. But it was no match for the messages they’d received from Menendez, Corzine and a host of vocal Jewish leaders and donors. This time, the vote was 20-3. Merhi was kicked off the ticket.

Merhi said he felt betrayed; he’d dreamed of serving in county government for decades. Aref Assaf, the president of the Arab American Forum, said Merhi's extraordinary treatment was the result of “influential Jewish leaders who threatened to withhold their financial support if the party does not comply.” Pascrell, asked whether the pressure to dump Merhi came from the Jewish community, gave this odd response to the New Jersey Jewish News: “Not from the community as such, but from some within it.”

Of course, Corzine and (particularly) Menendez got what they wanted. Largely because of their involvement, the story ended up going national, with Arab-American groups loudly pleading Merhi’s case. In the view of Israel ’s most reflexive backers in the United States , this certified Menendez as a reliable ally. For Menendez, the timing couldn’t have been any better: The most important election of his life was seven months away, and those New York and Philly ads weren’t getting any cheaper.

Felson

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