In a sign of the fight for the Jewish vote, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's campaign is embroiled in a whodunit over a political contribution made by an Islamic activist who has branded Israel a "terrorist state."
Nelson's campaign says it rejected a $500 donation made at an Oct. 22 fundraiser by Tampa activist Ahmed Bedier due to his strident criticisms of Israel.
But Bedier said he never gave the contribution in the first place. So nothing was rejected. The host of the event, Ocala pharmacist Manal Fakhoury, said Bedier is telling the truth.
"He did not give money," said Fakhoury, who held the fundraiser for 60 people at her home. "I saw the list'' of donors.
Regardless of who's telling the truth, the controversy exposes the tightrope politicians walk when they even appear with Islamic activists in a state with a strong and influential Jewish population, which leans heavily Democratic.
Republicans have been feverishly trying to turn more Jewish support to the GOP, claiming Democrats are too soft on Israel.
At the same time the Nelson-Bedier dispute surfaced last week on a conservative-leaning website dedicated to monitoring Islamic radicalism, President Barack Obama drew fire from Israel hawks and conservatives for not rebuking French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he was accidentally overheard telling the Democrat that Israel's leader is a "liar."
Nelson has gone to great lengths to fashion himself as pro-Israel. Conservative groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition — tied to Nelson opponent Adam Hasner, a former state House GOP leader from Delray Beach — say Nelson hasn't backed Israel enough.
Conservatives were quick to criticize Nelson for appearing at all with Bedier, a leading spokesman for the burgeoning and politically active Arab community in the Tampa Bay region, a proving ground for controversy.
Bedier gained a measure of political fame and infamy for his public calls for a fair trial and treatment of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who was charged in federal court with aiding terrorists.
A jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight counts but deadlocked on nine others before Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one charge of helping associates of a terrorist group with nonviolent activities.
Before his case ended, Al-Arian was a central figure in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, which Democrat Betty Castor narrowly lost to Mel Martinez. Castor was heavily criticized for not doing more to fire Al-Arian while he was a professor during her time as the head of USF.
Al-Arian's links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad were first publicly detailed in a PBS show by journalist-turned-terrorism-expert Steve Emerson, who went on to found a group called the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
On Wednesday, the project left its mark on this year's Florida Senate race when it published an online article that noted the Nelson fundraiser and described Bedier as "a top activist tied to one of the most notorious Islamist political organizations." That organization is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which Bedier used to lead in Tampa.
Critics brand CAIR as a group with terrorist sympathies because of evidence in a 2008 federal Hamas-support trial in Dallas. CAIR officials say each regional group is autonomous and that they're a civil rights organization that's the victim of anti-Muslim bigotry. CAIR is held in such suspicion by conservatives that the head of its South Florida organization was barred in October from becoming a member of the Broward Republican Executive Committee.
In its report, the Investigative Project quoted Nelson's office and campaign saying Bedier contributed $500, but the check was returned. A follow-up Tampa Tribune article also said the un-cashed check was returned.
Bedier said that wasn't the case.
"It's a lie," he said. "I never wrote a check. I never contributed money to him. Where's the evidence I gave him money?"
Nelson's campaign spokesman, Christopher Robinson, wouldn't talk about the issue and gave only scant details by e-mail.
A Nelson finance director reiterated that the check was returned after an Internet search revealed Bedier's statements about Israel engaging in "terrorism."
Quoting from Bedier's Facebook page, the Investigative Project called Bedier a co-host of the event. Bedier denied that. The event host, Fakhoury, said Bedier wasn't a host. Fakhoury has been associated with Bedier's new nonprofit group, United Voices of America, which seeks to increase minority and Muslim involvement in politics.
Asked why he attended the fundraiser if he didn't give money, Bedier said many of those in the room were Muslims who wanted to make sure that Nelson beat his Republican opponent, Hasner, who has repeatedly protested against CAIR and Bedier, and has boasted of walking out of the Florida House chamber during a prayer by a Muslim imam invited by a Jewish Democrat.
"Raising money for Senator Nelson so he can kick Adam Hasner's butt," Bedier said on his Facebook page.
Hasner's campaign suggested that Nelson was fine with associating with Bedier, whom the senator met this summer, until he got caught by the Investigative Project.
"It's a completely bogus political charge," responded Nelson's Senate office spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, who coincidentally worked on Castor's 2004 campaign. "Bill Nelson through his entire life has been an unwavering supporter of Israel. This is a xenophobic political smear."
Hasner's spokesman, Rick Wilson, said Nelson is just trying to "cover up for his abysmal record of indifference and ignorance toward Israel. The fact of the matter is that Israel policy is just another area where Bill Nelson is a shameless cheerleader for President Obama's agenda."
But Bedier suggested Nelson was too supportive of Israel.
"Sen. Nelson and I differ on many things," said Bedier. "I don't share his views on Israel."