Montgomery County's Republican commissioner candidates have seized on an issue more likely to resonate in the Middle East than with their constituents in the suburbs.
Before any serious debate on county finances, discussion of economic development, or even a whisper about a parks budget, GOP candidates Bruce L. Castor Jr. and Jenny Brown issued a statement Friday affirming their support of Israel.
The news release - the first official statement from their campaign since the May 17 primary - criticized a plan President Obama put forth last week for renewed negotiations on creating a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines.
And while the Castor-Brown campaign's foray into international affairs left many scratching their heads, others saw it as a savvy political move meant to drive a wedge between their chief opponent - Democrat Josh Shapiro - and one of Montgomery County's largest voting blocs.
"The United States should stand side-by-side with Israel and oppose this reckless and naive proposal," the statement read.
In presenting his own rough outline of possible Middle East peace negotiations, Obama suggested Thursday that renewed talks for the formation of a Palestinian state should start from the lines established before the Six Day War. Negotiations would proceed with land swaps mutually agreeable to both parties, he said.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately rejected the idea.
When asked about his decision to insert himself into the debate, Castor said airing his stance was only natural.
Jewish residents make up nearly 8 percent of Montgomery County's total population, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. And in past elections they have served as an active and reliable voting bloc.
Netanyahu himself grew up in Montgomery County, graduating from Cheltenham High School before rising to loftier office.
"We have a large Jewish population of voters in Montgomery County, and they're on top of the issue," Castor said. "They're very interested in security issues locally and in the state of Israel."
Shapiro declined to comment. But his supporters argued Monday that Obama's proposals last week were not substantially different from peace proposals put forth by his predecessors.
"It's ridiculous for them to lecture Josh on Israel," said County Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel III, a Democrat and former U.S. representative. Shapiro worked as his chief of staff and helped advise his former boss on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "I doubt that Castor and Jenny Brown have studied the issue for two minutes," Hoeffel said.
To be sure, Castor and Brown are not the first to court Southeastern Pennsylvania's Jews for political gain. During his gubernatorial bid last year, Democrat Dan Onorato made a trip to Israel and returned calling the nation a strong ally and a model for Pennsylvania's economic development.
Joe Sestak learned the importance of Israel as an issue the hard way last year, when a Washington political-action committee aired ads claiming the then Democratic candidate for Senate had "raised money for an anti-Israel organization the FBI called a front group for Hamas." His campaign scrambled to respond, calling the claims ludicrous and pushing Comcast to pull them off local stations.
When asked Monday, many within Montgomery County's Jewish congregations failed to see a connection between Israeli security and Montgomery County governance.
"It never ceases to surprise or amaze me that Israel comes up in the oddest of political races," said Lisa Hostein, executive editor of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Exponent.
Rabbi Jim Egolf, of Gladwyne's Beth David Reform Congregation, described it as a transparent attempt to pander to the Jewish community.
"A county commissioner talking about international politics is a bit of a stretch," he said.
For some, though, broaching the topic locally made sense. Rabbi David E. Strauss of the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood declined to speculate on what might influence members of his congregation when they cast their ballots, but he was adamant on one thing.
"Israel is a very important issue," he said. "Its safety of security is crucial to members of my congregation."
Castor explained his sudden interest in the Middle Eastern peace process this way:
As one of President Obama's chief supporters during the 2008 election, Shapiro - then deputy speaker of the state House - made several local campaign appearances including a town-hall meeting in Huntingdon Valley in hopes of selling undecided Jewish voters on the then presidential candidate.
"Barack shares our commitment to a strong relationship with Israel and to the social principles that bind us as American Jews," Shapiro told Philadelphia Magazine in a 2008 interview.
Pressing Shapiro now on his loyalties to the president puts him in a tight place with those voters and ties him to national Democratic politics at a time when Republicans have made significant gains across the country, Castor said.
"Josh vouched for Obama for being favorably disposed toward Israel," he said. "The question now is, was that good judgment on his part when it appears that Obama has turned his back on the Jewish community."