WASHINGTON – The Congress that will be installed Wednesday might be losing four of its Jewish members, but Republicans and several pro-Israel advocates insist it will remain as supportive as ever of the Jewish state.
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“The members who are taking over will be at least as strong in their pro-Israel inclinations as the people they’re replacing,” maintained Noah Silverman of the Republic Jewish Coalition, adding that “the leadership is stalwart on Israel.”
Though the Democrats’ shellacking in the November election reduced the numbers of Jewish members from 43 to 39 – though a new Democrat Jewish representative and senator will be among them – Silverman pointed out that the sole Jewish Republican, incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, will be the highest-ranking Jewish member ever.
Silverman predicted that the most visible change on Israel will be the extent to which Congress now challenges the Obama administration over its handling of the Middle East.
“The biggest difference we expect is how bold and how tough an approach we expect to see in congressional oversight,” he said. The members are “going to be skeptical and ask questions and conduct vigorous oversight of government policies.”
The non-partisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee described the 112th Congress as “expected to be the most pro-Israel Congress ever” in its Near East Report on the incoming legislative class produced after the elections.
“Many of Israel’s strongest supporters were reelected,” according to the AIPAC report. “AIPAC lay leaders and staff have established relationships with every new senator” already and received position papers in which “the new members of Congress express their support for a strong US-Israel relationship.”
But others, particularly Democrats, are concerned about what effect the new Congress will have on Israel, especially since many of the freshmen are Tea Party candidates without a long history of involvement in international issues and bent on cutting the budget.
“My greatest concern is two-fold: one is the unknown [members] and second is the ramifications of the deep fiscal conservatism and what that means for foreign aid and America’s involvement in the world,” said David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Incoming Republicans are already calling for $100 billion in budget cuts, and many have criticized foreign aid expenditures.
Silverman said, though, that Israel funding is an exception since Republicans are looking to cut foreign expenditures that haven’t been used properly and effectively.
“I’m sure that Israel’s [aid] will pass with flying colors,” he said, adding that in his conversations with new members – both Tea Party backers and others – he has heard resounding support for a strong US-Israel relationship.
“Anytime you’ve got new people, certain people don’t know the issues well,” noted Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who heads The Israel Project. “The people I’ve spoken with so far, their instincts, their hearts are in the right place, and they’re eager to learn.”
She referred to a long history of bipartisan support for Israel that she expects to continue, and said that while key Jewish Democratic supporters of Israel will no longer be in their leadership roles, she expects strong replacements, pointing to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen taking over from Howard Berman as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Silverman also said that the new Middle East subcommittee chairman Steve Chabot, who takes over from Gary Ackerman, would “hit the ground running” and that Kay Granger, who will replace Nita Lowey as chair of appropriations’ foreign operations subcommittee, was well-versed in Israel issues from several trips there.
But Doug Bloomfield, who once worked as a legislative director for AIPAC, said it was too early to judge many of the new members and that he was concerned about how much aid to Israel they would support given the GOP’s priority on trimming the budget.
“It’s boilerplate language,” Bloomfield said of the position papers referenced by AIPAC. “Anybody can say that. The question is how they vote.”
Bloomfield went further in dismissing the position papers, charging that they were often written by AIPAC itself, as he personally had done when he worked there.
AIPAC press secretary Jennifer Cannata sharply rejected the assertion.
“AIPAC does not write position papers for candidates.
Candidates, often in conjunction with local pro-Israel activists, write their own positions,” she said. “That so many new members of Congress took the time on their own to articulate their position on US-Israel relations is a testament to how important this alliance is for America.”
Still, Bloomfield contended that it was too early to gauge their support for Israel.
“That’s a judgment you can’t make the day before they show up at the office,” he said. “Give them a chance to prove it. I hope that it turns out to be true.”