- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, returned yesterday from Israel, saying Israelis are "making serious efforts to prepare" for attacks by Iraq should the United States go to war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Mr. Torricelli, whose seemingly insurmountable lead for re-election has vanished since he was admonished by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, traveled independently to Israel and met government and military officials.

"They understand the enormous dangers to the population of Israel if a war is begun, and they also know the overriding dangers if war is now avoided and Saddam Hussein develops weapons of mass destruction," he told reporters at a briefing yesterday.

Political analyst Cliff Zukin said that by taking the trip to Israel, Mr. Torricelli is "trying to change the subject" and divert attention away from the ethics problems.

Rick Thigpen, a Democratic analyst in New Jersey, pointed out Mr. Torricelli has a lot of experience, including in foreign affairs, that may very well speak to voters deciding between him and Republican Party challenger Doug Forrester.

Polls indicate that support for Mr. Torricelli has declined since he was admonished by the Senate panel in late July for violating rules by accepting expensive gifts from businessman David Chang.

A poll released last week by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found the two candidates tied at 37 percent, with 19 percent undecided, for the November election.

Mr. Zukin, head of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University, said the race is clearly a battle of issue definition. "Forrester wants to talk about ethics, and Torricelli wants to talk about anything but," he said.

Mr. Zukin said about 9 percent of the state's registered voters are Jewish, so it is not a particularly large voting block. But, he said, financial contributions from this section are very important in elections, "more so than the numbers."

The senator said that in deciding when to make a move against Iraq, the United States must consider whether Israel is fully ready to defend itself and whether America has done everything possible to get allies and access to bases to minimize U.S. casualties.

"The United States can remove Saddam Hussein from power and destroy his weapons of mass destruction without question, what is required is to do this in minimizing the casualties of the United States Armed Forces," said Mr. Torricelli, who went to Israel with friends after an official trip with other New Jersey officials was canceled due to safety concerns.

Mr. Torricelli said Israel has developed a much better air-defense capability since being attacked by Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He was "enormously impressed" at how prepared Israeli hospitals are for chemical or biological attacks.

Mr. Forrester's campaign manager, Bill Pascoe, yesterday highlighted Mr. Torricelli's opposition to building and deploying ballistic-missile defenses.

"Having gone to Israel and seen firsthand the precarious position of our ally and knowing that Israel was attacked by missiles during the Gulf war have you finally dropped your opposition to building and deploying ballistic-missile defenses?" Mr. Pascoe asked.

"After all, you voted at least 35 times against protecting our nation and our allies, such as Israel, by constantly voting against building and deploying a missile-defense system."

The Forrester camp also continued to hammer at the ethics issue this week, noting that under Mr. Torricelli's leadership of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, it accepted donations from Samuel Waksal, the former head of ImClone Systems Inc., who was recently indicted on bank fraud, obstruction of justice and other charges.

"Like so many of Mr. Torricelli's fund-raisers and contributors, it seems Mr. Waksal has trouble staying on the right side of the law," Mr. Pascoe said in a statement Monday, adding that Mr. Torricelli and Mr. Waksal also share the same defense attorney.

The Forrester camp also noted that Lawrence Penna was sentenced Monday for making illegal contributions to Mr. Torricelli's 1996 campaign and to former President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. Mr. Penna, 58, was given nine months in jail and ordered to repay money he had made illegally by manipulating the price of stocks.

Torricelli spokeswoman Debra DeShong said the Torricelli camp did not know of Mr. Penna's illegal actions. "The campaign has maintained all along that it had no knowledge of illegal contributions," she said.

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