WASHINGTON – The 113th US Congress was sworn in on Thursday without some of the most prominent pro- Israel voices that have been heard on Capitol Hill in recent years.
The number of Jewish lawmakers also dropped, despite three new Jewish representatives and a senator, but pro-Israel activists said they expected the new Congress to remain as supportive of Israel as in years past.
Veteran backers of Israel with senior positions in their respective chambers, including Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Rep. Howard Berman (DCalifornia) and Gary Ackerman (DNew York), either retired or lost their election bids. Other loud voices for Israel, including Reps. Steve Rothman (D-New Jersey) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada), also lost their races.
There are 22 Jewish representatives this session as compared to 26 in 2010.
“It has to be considered quite a loss, but everything is relative, and in terms of support for Israel it shouldn’t make a difference,” Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who now runs a staunchly pro-Israel political action committee, said of the departing legislators.
He assessed that the new faces were less seasoned on Middle East issues but not likely to diminish the support Israel enjoys in Congress.
“There’s no one coming in that’s waving a red flag. On the other hand, there’s no one coming in flying the blue and white flag,” Amitay said.
The leadership on several key committees and subcommittees is also changing, but many of the incoming figures are considered friendly to Israel.
On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey is set to take the place of John Kerry, who is expected to be confirmed as Hillary Clinton’s replacement for secretary of state.
Menendez, among other issues, has championed strict sanctions on Iran, including co-sponsoring a measure to close loopholes and tighten the screws that was passed as part of the defense authorization bill this winter and signed into law by US President Barack Obama late Wednesday.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who has made Israel one of his top issues, will be taking over for Berman as ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And Ackerman, who was the ranking member of the HFAC’s Middle East subcommittee, is likely to be replaced by California Rep. Brad Sherman, another strong Israel backer.
HFAC Chairwoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen (R-Florida) will be leaving the post as part of the GOP leadership rotation, but Amitay said her replacement, Ed Royce of California, has already been reaching out to the Jewish community.
National Jewish Democratic Council President David Harris noted that the total of Jewish members was only declining by a handful – leaving more than a “minyan” of 10 in the Senate and twice that in the US House – so that it wasn’t a dramatic change.
All are Democrats save for Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader in the 112th Congress, who received a handful of votes in the contest for speaker on Thursday but not nearly enough to take over the top post.
Harris said that a diminishing number of Jewish members wouldn’t hurt Israel’s cause in the US legislature.
“I’m tremendously confident that the Democratic caucus of the 113th Congress will be as overwhelmingly pro-Israel as the 112th,” he said.
The progressive J Street lobby was also enthusiastic about the orientation of the new members, noting that 70 of the 71 candidates it had endorsed prevailed in the November election.
“It’s the most pro-Israel, pro-peace Congress yet,” said Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs.
Williams described the politicians J Street had backed as those who both supported the special US-Israel relationship and who were strongly engaged in support of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
“This may well be the Congress that has the opportunity to assist the president in a two-state resolution,” he said.
In addition, there are several outgoing lawmakers who have often taken positions at odds with Israel advocates, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.