ROCKVILLE — Del. Kathy Szeliga and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, appearing Sunday at a Rockville synagogue, both pledged to support Israel if elected to Maryland's open Senate seat.
But the candidates differed sharply on whether the Iran nuclear deal was the best path toward supporting the United States' chief ally in the Middle East.
Van Hollen told the group of about 150 at B'Nai Israel that the agreement — signed last year to restrict Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions on the country — was "in the interest of the national security of the United States and Israel."
"Iran is in a much more difficult position if they want to build a nuclear weapon today," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "If we detect cheating, we have all of the options on the table that we had before."
Szeliga, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties in the House of Delegates, said she "absolutely would have voted against" the controversial deal if she had been in the Senate a year ago.
The Baltimore County Republican pointed to two ballistic missiles test fired by Iran in March, each bearing the message "Israel must be wiped out" in Hebrew.
"The ink was barely dry on this deal," she said. "If anyone had a doubt as to what Iran's plans are, they're crystal-clear. Negotiating with Iran and believing they will keep their word is naive at best."
Szeliga and Van Hollen are running for the Maryland seat in the Senate left open by the retirement of Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski.
Szeliga — who has said the agreement was a leading reason she entered the race — is one of several GOP candidates across the country who are criticizing the deal during the congressional campaign and suggesting the Democrats who supported it were disloyal to Israel.
Polling by Gallup this year has found that 30 percent of Americans support the deal and 57 percent do not.
The deal was negotiated by the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, opposed it.
Mikulski supported the agreement. Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed it.
Van Hollen and Szeliga appeared separately at B'Nai Israel; each spoke for 30 minutes. They addressed questions submitted by the audience on a wide range of topics, including how to stimulate the economy and navigate Washington gridlock.
Van Hollen was asked if he would vote to override President Barack Obama's veto of legislation that could allow families affected by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to sue the Saudi Arabian government. He said he would, and drew applause.
"If it can be demonstrated that members of the Saudi government were complicit in the 9/11 attacks, then American citizens should be able to get recourse in court," Van Hollen said.
As he left the stage, Van Hollen took a shot at Szeliga, warning the audience to be wary of statements that "are just untrue" but can be made in forums that don't allow for a back-and-forth between candidates.
Szeliga told the audience she would welcome the chance to debate Van Hollen. The two have agreed to participate in at least two broadcast debates and a few forums before the November election
Asked what her first action would be if elected, Szeliga said she would request a seat on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and work to reverse the "mounds and mounds of regulations passed over the last seven years" that she said tie the hands of small-business owners.
Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers, a physician, also is running for the Senate seat. She was not invited to participate in Sunday's forum.