The campaign for the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland is being waged in Tel Aviv as well as Baltimore, along the Galilee as well as the Chesapeake.
State Senate President and gubernatorial candidate Steny H. Hoyer is in the middle of a 10-day swing through Israel and may at this very moment be planting a tree in the Bicentennial Forest at Nes Harim.
Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis is planning a tour for early December that will take him from Negev to Jerusalem. He too is running for governor.
Attorney General Francis B. Burch set the pace for his fellow gubernatorial aspirants with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land last February.
Only Acting Gov. Blair Lee and Baltimore City Council President Walter Orlinsky have yet to include Israel in their travel plans for the next year. Lee says he doesn't think he will visit there, "nor Ireland, nor Poland." Orlinsky can make the claim of having already seen the country nine times since 1956.
What is the attraction of Israel for these statehouse politicians in Maryland? Here are some answers from which to pick and choose:
Fran Tracy, Hoyer's campaign manager: "Steny went because he has a firm belief in the free exchange of ideas."
Shirley Arnowitz, a representative of the American Zionist Federation who arranged for the Venetoulis trip: "We invited Mr. Venetoulis because he is a recognized champion of the concept of total growth management."
Phil Altfield, Burch's political strategist: "Bill has been a quiet, almost anonymous Israel bond buyer for a number of years. He's an ardent Zionist."
Lee: "For the same reason you think."
Orlinsky: "It's perfectly obvious the whole thing is political. Its a way of gaining entrance into the Jewish community."
Orlinsky pointed out that there are more than 100,000 Jews in the Baltimore area alone who represent an important political group in terms of both votes and money. "There is a natural desire to go after that vote," he said. "But I think it's getting out of hand."
A substantial number of Montgomery County voters are also Jewish.
The Burch, Hoyer and Venetoulis trips are all ostensibly nonpolitical. They were arranged by nonprofit organizations at the behest of the Israeli government, which is eager to provide American politicians with a first-hand look at the country.
Burch went to Israel with 22 other state attorneys general. The Israeli government paid for the trip.
Hoyer is on what is called a "goodwill mission" with 16 other members of the National Conference of State Legislators. The Israeli government is paying Hoyer's way, although he is picking up the tab for his wife, Judy.
Earl Mackey, executive director of the conference, said Hoyer was selected by the executive board and approved by the Israelis for the trip. "They wanted important officials," he said. "They didn't want just anyone."
Venetoulis is to lead what is being called a "Baltimore County Friendship Mission" to Israel sponsored by the American Zionist Federation. Shirley Arnowitz, a publicist for the federation, said Venetoulis was asked to lead the trip because the problems he has dealt with in Baltimore County are "quite similar to the urban sprawl problems in Israel."
She said the federation offered to sponsor Venetoulis, but he decided to pay his own way. According to an advertisement in the Jewish Times of Baltimore, that amounts to $899 per person. Arnowitz, while effusive in her praise for Venetoulis, said the invitation had "no political implications whatsoever."
Hyman Bookbinder, director of the American Jewish Committee, said the Israeli government aggressively recruits American visitors - and often pays the expenses - because "it has a very important story to tell and is confident that people will come back with an appreciation of its security needs."
While pointing out that he was not condemning the all-expenses-paid practice, Bookbinder said: "If I were a candidate, my personal taste is that I would not accept a free trip to any country. Frankly, I think it's unwise."
Bookbinder said there was an "obvious political dimension" to such trips. "Going to Israel when running for governor in Maryland is no more a prerequisite than for a candidate in Boston to visit Ireland," he said. "But it is a legitimate way for a candidate to express concern."
"The Jewish electorate is intelligent. It asks a lot of questions. Why shouldn't a candidate want to show a familiarity with the issues?"
Although Maryland political observers say the Israel interest appears stronger this year than ever before, it is based on a solid tradition. Suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel, himself a Jew, visited Israel twice and has a road named in his honor. There also is a Maryland pavillion in the country and a suite of hospital rooms near Haifa named for the Orlinsky family. The Council president's father was a distinguished Old Testament scholar.