Washington Watch: Jack Kemp leaves pro-Israel legacy

When it was very difficult to find Republican friends on the Hill, Kemp was a strong one.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
As chairman of the platform committee at the 1988 Republican Convention, Jack Kemp quarterbacked what Tom Dine, then executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, called "the most pro-Israel platform ever by either party." Unfortunately, the party's presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush, and his campaign manager, James A. Baker III, did not share Kemp's view of Israel. Kemp was an outspoken advocate for closer US-Israel relations, and that led to conflicts with two Republican administrations in which the elder Bush and Baker played prominent roles. As Bush's secretary of housing and urban development in 1992, he set up a meeting at HUD with his Israeli counterpart, housing minister Ariel Sharon, who had clashed repeatedly with secretary of state Baker over settlement policy.When Baker learned of the meeting, he summoned Kemp to the White House Cabinet Room when the president was away, and bluntly ordered him to cancel the meeting, Kemp later told friends. Kemp protested that he had a good relationship with the Israeli government and the Jewish community and that would be valuable in 1992 when Bush ran for reelection. Baker reportedly replied, "F*** the Jews; they didn't vote for us." The meeting ultimately took place at the Israeli Embassy. IN THE EARLY 1980S, when Bush was vice president and Baker was president Ronald Reagan's White House chief of staff, it was "a period of confrontation over Israel's attack on the Iraqi reactor, the AWACS to Saudi Arabia, the Golan Heights Law, the first Lebanon War and the Reagan Plan," recalled Oded Eran, the embassy's congressional liaison at the time. "It was very difficult to find Republican friends on the Hill. Kemp was clearly one and a strong one. I think Kemp interceded with the administration and helped to launch the relations on a more stable path and to help build the strategic partnership between the US and Israel." Today, aid to Israel is on autopilot and Israel enjoys wall-to-wall support on Capitol Hill. But it wasn't always that way. Kemp deserves great credit for the change. Stressing Israel's strategic value to the United States, he lobbied fellow Republican to vote for foreign aid, something many had opposed the 1970s and 1980s. As legislative director of AIPAC during the 1980s, I got to work closely with Kemp on foreign aid and many other initiatives. He was a hard working, effective, well-informed and bipartisan leader. His enthusiasm was infectious, and once he started talking about Israel, it was hard to stop him. He was the senior Republican on the critical Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which had jurisdiction over military and economic aid, and he consistently demonstrated his commitment to strong US-Israel relations. His name was attached to many key pro-Israel and human right initiatives, often with the late congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA). That alliance paid off in an unexpected and unrelated way in 1989 when Kemp took over HUD, which his predecessor left steeped in scandal, and Lantos became chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations, which was investigating the mess. The two friends and former colleagues met privately in Kemp's spacious office at HUD headquarters. Kemp told Lantos his goal was to clean up the mess he inherited. "Jack said, 'Let's cooperate,' and they did, and it worked," said an aide who attended the meeting. SEVERAL YEARS EARLIER, when Lantos was going for his second term, the opposition was running a thinly veiled anti-Semitic campaign against the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the Congress. Lantos asked vice president Bush and Kemp to cancel scheduled campaign appearances in the district with the GOP candidate whose literature stressed "He's one of us." Bush refused; Kemp cancelled. Kemp and his wife, Joanne, were leaders in the Soviet Jewry cause among members of Congress and their spouses. "My proudest memory of Jack is marching alongside him on the Mall on behalf of Soviet Jewry," said Neville Lamdan, Israel's congressional liaison in the late 1980s. "He was indeed an extraordinary friend of Israel and the Jewish people." Kemp, the charismatic former football superstar who represented the Buffalo, NY, suburbs in Congress from 1971 to 1989, grew up in West LA's heavily Jewish Wilshire district and attended Fairfax High School, where most of his classmates were Jewish. Kemp called himself a "bleeding heart conservative" and was a social moderate on many issues - affirmative action, rights for illegal immigrants, enterprise zones for minorities, expanded public housing, sanctions against apartheid South Africa. But when it came to fiscal issues, he was very conservative. His views on supply side economics and massive tax cuts to stimulate the economy were said to have greatly influenced Ronald Reagan and his friend Binyamin Netanyahu. That brand of conservatism wouldn't pass the ideological purity test in today's shrinking Republican Party and helps explain why so many Jews cannot find a home in the GOP. Jack Kemp died on May 2 at 73, leaving a legacy that includes the wall-to-wall support for Israel that is now routine on Capitol Hill and a willingness to reach out across party lines on critical foreign policy and domestic issues that is in such short supply in Washington.