Onetime presidential hopeful Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) hesitated for several moments before answering the reporter's question.
Would he consider ever sending his 15-year-old daughter to Israel for the summer, as some American Jews do?
"Yes, but I would worry," Harkin said. Then, he added, "But I think she's safer in Israel than in New York."
In fact Harkin, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and who was in the Bay Area last week, believes Israel is safer now than during the recent wave of Hamas terrorist attacks, thanks to inroads by Israeli intelligence.
Still, he told a Lafayette audience, "the road to peace in the Middle East will be longer and harder than we thought when the Oslo Accord was signed" between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"There are strong, determined forces that want to end the peace process and we have to stand strong against them," Harkin said.
Harkin, 56, an advocate for Israel during 22 years in Congress, was in the Bay Area to raise out-of-state funds for his upcoming senatorial campaign.
He addressed 100 people at a Moroccan-style dessert reception at a private home in Lafayette. The event was sponsored by Northern Californians for Good Government, a nonpartisan, pro-Israel Political Action Committee based in San Francisco that makes contributions to pro-Israel, out-of-state congressional candidates.
At the reception, NCGG's first major event in the East Bay, Harkin gave the Clinton administration high marks for taking an active role in the peace process and in fighting terrorist activities.
He also reaffirmed his own support for Israel.
"I will not let you down on my commitment and my support for a strong, safe, free Israel," he said.
Harkin's pro-Israel voting record has made him a favorite of NCGG for years. As a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Harkin has been instrumental in obtaining foreign aid for Israel, including $650 million in emergency assistance to offset the Scud damage inflicted in the Gulf War and funding to aid in resettling Soviet immigrants.
Along with his wife, Ruth, who is chair of the Overseas Private Investment Committee, Harkin has supported providing economic aid to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Recently he won Senate approval for anti-terrorist grants and loans to Israel of $100 million to be paid over the next two years.
He cautioned that although aid to Israel during the next two years is guaranteed, future funding may be in jeopardy. Thirty-five percent of the foreign-aid budget goes to Israel and Egypt.
"There's a new crowd in Washington that are going after foreign aid," he said. "They seem to think it's a way to balance the budget."
But Harkin pointed out that only 1 percent of the gross national product goes to foreign aid, the lowest percentage of any industrialized nation.
Harkin said he expects his upcoming re-election campaign to be particularly difficult. Not only is he a liberal running in a historically conservative state, but the religious right has targeted him for his pro-abortion and anti-school prayer voting record.
Because of his pro-Israel stance, the 15-year-old NCGG has rallied to Harkin's side.
"Most senators need to raise out-of-state money [for election campaigns], particularly those from smaller population states like Iowa," said Andrea Spiegel, NCGG's executive director.
Iowa's estimated Jewish population is 6,000, or .2 percent of the state population, according to American Jewish Year Book figures for 1993. California's, by contrast, is 919,000, or 3 percent.
NCGG chair Mort Friedkin said the PAC does not make contributions to California candidates because "there are enough Jews here."
On behalf of the NCGG, Friedkin presented Harkin with a check for $4,000.