BY ABDON M. PALLASCH
Chicago Sun-Times Political Reporter
CHICAGO--Both major party candidates for U.S. Senate in Illinois say they are great friends of Israel.
Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias have been asked in recent public forums to criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and both have declined.
Representing the North Shore 10th Congressional District for the last 10 years, Kirk has won over many of the Jewish voters and donors there who ordinarily support Democrats.
That has been key to his repeated victories in the district, "And it will be key to our victory in November," Kirk said Monday.
Giannoulias says he's just as pro-Israel Kirk.
"Congressman Kirk has been great on Israel," Giannoulias said at a Town Hall at Ann Sathers restaurant last month. "If you look at my positions on Israel, we are essentially the exact same. I believe they are our strongest ally in the region. I believe in the safety and security of Israel, especially dealing with external threats like a nuclear-armed Iran. I think we need to continue to show our unwavering partnership with the only democracy in the region. I think Kirk and I agree on essentially every single element of that relationship."
But Kirk said Monday the difference between him and Giannoulias is Kirk's record of accomplishment.
"Many members vote on foreign policy and Israel-related issues but few actually lead -- I'm the only candidate with a proven record on this," Kirk said.
Speaking to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Monday, Kirk outlined the bill he passed to try to choke off gasoline shipments into Iran to force the Iranian leadership's hand on Iran's nuclear program. Kirk said President Obama has signed that bill but has not yet put it to use.
In addition to the Iran sanctions bill, Kirk also pushed to get Israel integrated into the United States radar and satellite grid, he said.
"The difference is activism and leadership," Kirk said.
Kirk and Giannoulias have gotten questions about whether they are too pro-Israel.
"It sounds like you have no concerns whatsoever about Israel's grave record of human rights abuses against the Palestinian people," Katherine Metres, a wellness consultant, told Kirk at Monday's Global Affairs speech. Citing instances of innocent Palestinians allegedly being killed, imprisoned and their land confiscated by Israel authorities, she told Kirk, "I would love to hear what are you doing to speak out in support of those human rights activists, both Palestinian and Israeli, who are standing up against these abuses."
Kirk responded, "I think we should support human rights of people everywhere, including in Gaza and the West Bank, but the inherent problems in Gaza and the West Bank are the collapse of a unifying Palestinian Authority that could sign a peace agreement with Israel."
Giannoulias got a similar question at his town hall from a woman who said American officials should have criticized Israel for killing nine people on a "flotilla" of boats which supporters said brought food and medicine to Gaza in May.
"There was some disappointment that America was the only country that didn't say anything about the flotilla," the woman said. "Most of the world said this was wrong -- the killings on the boats."
Giannoulias backed the Israeli government: "I would make an argument that the flotilla wasn't there to provide basic needs -- they were there to provoke actions, which is exactly what it did."
Political consultant Don Rose said Kirk might get a higher percentage of the Jewish vote because of the friends he has won over on the North Shore in the last 10 years, "But that may not necessarily transfer to Lincoln Park Jews and Hyde Park Jews. If Giannoulias loses Jewish voters, it won't be for foreign policy reasons. It will be because they feel he's not 'kosher' in other ways."