WASHINGTON – Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t pleased. She had just moved into her
roomy new offices as the incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman
only to find a row of her photos blocked by a poorly placed
While the requisite glory wall of pictures of the congresswoman
alongside luminaries ranging from the Dalai Lama to Binyamin Netanyahu was in
full view, as were her family snapshots and images with distinguished American
military officers, largely concealed was the lineup of a Styrofoam boat, a
floating truck and other peculiar water-based vessels.
collected these images from US Coast Guard photographers under strict
instructions to send the 58- year-old Havana native-turned- Florida
representative a picture any time they capture an unusual boat full of Cuban
refugees trying to reach America.
“These are people who hear 24/7 that
the United States is their enemy. And yet, they will take anything that floats
and try to come over here to the land that they love because they know there’s
freedom,” Ros- Lehtinen said in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, her
first with an Israeli newspaper since being named committee chair for the new
Republican-led Congress, which assumes control in January.
didn’t take a boat from Cuba to the US in 1960 – her family arrived on one of
the last Pan Am flights out – but she clearly identifies with those who are
determined to reach the American shore any way they can. And that informs not
only her attachment to the US, but her view of the foreign policy that she will
“I believe in the promise of America. Being a Cuban refugee,
having come here when I was eight, I know that this is a shining city on the
It’s been that way for me, my family and the great majority of
people I represent in south Florida,” she said. “It’s a special place, and I
believe in the prominence of America, and having America be and continue to be
an exceptional place, and making no apologies for America being a
She summed up the pillars of that worldview in the statement
she issued after being chosen as the chairwoman earlier this month: “Isolate and
hold our enemies accountable, while supporting and strengthening our
“I support strong sanctions and other penalties against those who
aid violent extremists, brutalize their own people and have time and time again
rejected calls to behave as responsible nations,” she elaborated, and then
warned, “Rogue regimes never respond to anything less than hardball.”
OF Ros-Lehtinen’s list of rogue regimes is Iran, a country in her sights for
years as Congress debated sanctions on its energy sector. She was glad to see
sanctions finally passed this summer after lackluster support from Democratic
and Republican White Houses alike, but she still thinks there are too many
loopholes and waivers the administration can use to let companies doing business
with Teheran off the hook. She’s planning to submit legislation toughening those
provisions after she assumes the gavel.
“Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is a
tireless advocate for America’s national security,” said Republican Senator Mark
Kirk, a key author of the Iran sanctions legislation in the House before taking
over President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat this winter. “She’s going to play
a critical role next year in enforcing US sanctions against Iran and holding the
State Department accountable.”
“She’s disarming but tough,” said
Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, who is on the Foreign Affairs Committee and
anticipates working with her on further Iran measures in the next Congress.
“She’s a strong advocate of a pro-Israel position and an anti-nuclear Iran
position, and she expresses those views strongly even when they involve
criticizing a Republican or Democratic administration.”
security for Israel meshes with other US national security
“We need to help Israel, we need to show Israel that we are
strongly in its corner,” she stressed.
“I think she’ll be terrific on
Israel relations issues. I don’t think there’s anybody better,” assessed Morrie
Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee and currently the head of the staunchly pro-Israel Washington
Political Action Committee.
“She’s 100 percent behind making Israel
secure. I can’t think of any issue affecting Israel in which she hasn’t been on
the right side,” enthused Amitay, whose PAC has funded her campaigns generously
over the years and who was close enough to her to attend a celebration in honor
of the PhD in education she received from the University of Miami in 2004, 15
years into her tenure in Congress. Ros- Lehtinen started out as a teacher and
principal before running for the Florida state legislature and then the US
And her roots don’t only extend to Cuba. Her maternal
grandparents, who were Jewish, fled Turkey for Cuba, making her Jewish according
to Jewish law. He mother ended up converting to Catholicism to marry her father,
and she now considers herself Episcopalian.
But Ros-Lehtinen dismissed
the idea that her religious background has had any influence on her attitude
toward Israel. In fact, she said that she doesn’t like to talk about her Jewish
heritage because it can lead people to question her stance on Middle East issues
– as well as view her as opportunistic. Her district in southern Florida, after
all, has a healthy contingent of Jewish voters.
“I don’t talk about it
because people then think, oh all of the sudden... she’s discovered Jewish
roots. But I didn’t just discover it,” she explained, “I would have the same
thoughts and the same attitudes if I did not have Jewish ancestry.”
ATTITUDES include strong support for aid to Israel despite a Republican climate
hostile to spending, in which foreign aid is seen as particularly vulnerable.
Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged the threat, saying, “I don’t know what the leadership
wants to do in terms of levels of funding. If they say 5 percent across the
board for everybody then that’s the way it is.”
But she also suggested
ways of securing Israel aid by having it considered separately as security
Those prospects, however, don’t sit well with Democrats who
are concerned about the implications of distinguishing aid to
“Foreign aid – including aid to Israel – is a tiny fraction of
our budget that pays mammoth dividends,” argued National Jewish Democratic
Council president David Harris.
“For America to remain engaged as a world
leader, and for the sake of Israel’s security, Congress must fully fund foreign
aid and aid to Israel together. As the pro- Israel community has said for
decades, the two cannot be separated for a host of reasons.”
the progressive side of the Jewish community are concerned about her posture
toward the Palestinians.
While Ros-Lehtinen said she supports a two-state
solution, she expressed concern that current US policies were leading toward a
three-state solution as the Palestinians fracture between Hamas and Fatah. She
considers Hamas, which openly calls for the destruction of Israel, much more
extreme than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime
Minister Salam Fayyad, an independent. But she made clear that doesn’t mean she
holds them in high regard.
“This feeling that Abbas and Fayyad are the
good guys, if they’re the good guys then we should start praying for Israel’s
safety right now, because these are folks who have not wanted to be true
partners for peace,” she declared. “They do not recognize Israel’s right to
exist as a free, democratic, Jewish state.
They will not abide by prior
commitments, they will not sit and negotiate with Israel.”
And she was
particularly troubled by the way the US has provided financial assistance to the
“They know they don’t have to do a darn thing; with this
administration they will get a blank check and they will always get helped out,”
she said. “Try looking at their budgets and try examining where they’re using
their money and where our US dollars are going.
If you track US dollars,
you’ll never find out where that money goes.”
Her stance on the PA, as on
many issues, puts her at odds with the White House, but Ros- Lehtinen isn’t one
to shy away from confrontation. In this case, her statements come just as the
Obama administration has emphasized state-building as a way of continuing
progress on the peace process after talks stalled when Israel refused to extend
a settlement moratorium and the Palestinians refused to have direct talks
without a freeze in place. The program, which trains PA security forces and
builds governing institutions, is heavily premised on the notion that Abbas and
particularly Fayyad are men of peace.
“Prime Minister Fayyad has
accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time under very difficult
circumstances,” maintained Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a recent event
outlining the American commitment to continue to support his program. “Along
with President Abbas, he has brought strong leadership to the Palestinian
Authority and he has helped advance the cause of a two-state solution by making
a real difference in the lives of the Palestinian people.”
opposition could make it harder to get upward of $200 million in annual funding
for the PA budget approved, as well as other paths of assistance to the
Middle East observers on the left, many of whom see the
efforts of Abbas and Fayyad as creating the conditions on the ground for peace
by bringing greater security and economic growth to the West Bank, are worried
about the vacuum created if they fail.
“US aid to the Palestinians is not
a blank check but an investment in peace and security. It supports specific
humanitarian needs, state-building efforts and the building of a security
service that is professional and accountable,” said Americans for Peace Now
spokesman Ori Nir.
He contended that Congress already provides the
necessary oversight of US assistance.
“Thanks to Congress, America’s aid
program to the Palestinians is probably the most conditioned, restricted and
audited aid program in the world.”
Hadar Susskind, president of policy
and strategy for J Street, had a more dire assessment.
“Many of the
positions she’s taken, whether it’s letters or resolutions she’s written or
statements she’s made, are really dangerous,” he charged. He pointed to a letter
to Clinton Ros-Lehtinen sponsored this summer which called for the PLO mission
in Washington to be ejected from the country.
“If you’re trying to lead a
peace process between these two groups, deporting the diplomats from one group
doesn’t help that process,” he said.
ROS-LEHTINEN has also been scathing
when it comes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, another major
source of funding for Palestinian civilians provided largely by US government
The money is intended to fund schools, hospitals and other
basic services for Palestinian refugees, but Ros-Lehtinen labeled it “a
propaganda tool to bash Israel” and has included language tightening American
oversight of any funds it gives to UNWRA.
The legislation would also
forbid the US from holding a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – a forum for
repeated attacks on Israel – and would hold back a proportionate share of
America’s UN contribution for any funding to the council unless the State
Department certifies that member countries aren’t human rights violators and
Ros-Lehtinen’s UN oversight legislation languished when
it was first introduced in 2007.
Now at the committee helm she expects it
to move, and will soon hold hearings to draw public attention to what she views
as a host of UN ills, including outright anti-Semitism.
Still, the Obama
administration reversed a decision made under George W. Bush to participate in
the council and prizes multilateralism, making it unlikely to back her
But from Ros-Lehtinen’s perspective, “If Cuba wants to fund the
UN Human Rights Council, have at it. We should not be funding it.”
one of whose officials is a vice president of the council, is a perennial target
And vice versa – a point of pride to the first Latina
to serve in Congress.
After Fidel Castro criticized her as a “fierce
wolf” when it became clear she would be the new committee chairwoman, she
tweeted, “BINGO: 1st Evo Morales slams me, then [Hugo] Chavez calls me bandit +
now Fidel says I’m Loba Feroz...”
She is set to impose obstacles to any
administration efforts to improve the US relationship with Cuba, and marvels at
finding herself in a position to do so.
“I would have never thought it in
a million years. Neither would my parents when we first came over here,” she
“When we first came over here, I was eight and I didn’t know a word
of English, and here I am a member of Congress and being a chair – a chair of
And not just the committee chair, but the
highest-ranking female Republican in Congress.
“Is this a great country
or what?” she asked with boisterous laugh. “It’s incredible. It says a lot, not
about me but about the opportunities available in this country.”