Washington Watch: Will Israel become a wedge issue?

With rare exceptions, the country was not an issue in this year’s congressional elections, but federal spending was, and everything will be on chopping block in ‘tea-infused’ 112th Congress.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Israel can expect a whole lot of lovin’ from the incoming GOP-led House of Representatives, but will it get the big bucks it wants and expects as well?
The budget hawks elected in November take office in less than two weeks with a mandate to slash federal spending, and aid to Israel may not escape their claws, warned a top GOP lawmaker.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated that Israel’s $3 billion annual aid package may no longer be immune to across-the-board cuts in foreign aid. If the GOP leadership calls for all-embracing cuts, she told The Jerusalem Post’s Hilary Leila Krieger, “then that’s the way it is.” She told The Hill, the Capitol Hill newspaper, that foreign aid is on the chopping block, and “no country should be overlooked.”
With rare exceptions, Israel was not an issue in this year’s congressional elections, but federal spending was, and everything will be on the chopping block in what my friend Jim Besser calls the “tea-infused” 112th Congress.
Israel’s $3 billion – the biggest earmark in the foreign aid bill –could be an inviting target for budget slashers.
Ros-Lehtinen has indicated support for incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s proposal to separate aid to Israel from the rest of the foreign aid bill, possibly moving it to the defense budget, which would remove it from her committee’s jurisdiction. This maneuver would create unwelcome problems by sparking widespread resentment, particularly among the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians. Don’t be surprised if the first to oppose the plan – very privately – will be the Israeli government, because the move would only complicate its already uneasy relations with its neighbors. The whole idea deserves a quick death.
Palestinians said they were offended by the House’s unanimous passage last week of a nonbinding resolution warning them against unilaterally declaring statehood – as some top Palestinian Authority officials have threatened – but the message was aimed at the Republican leadership as well as the PA, according to some Hill insiders.
They report that the Democrats wanted to put the House on record backing the two-state approach before the GOP takeover next month. Although Ros-Lehtinen was a primary sponsor of the resolution, Democrats feared that if it was brought up after she takes the chairmanship, the measure might omit that language in favor of what one committee source called “gratuitous Palestinian bashing.”
She does not share outgoing chairman Howard Berman’s enthusiasm for the peace process or support for the Obama administration’s Mideast policies. Berman has praised the efforts of PA leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, while Ros-Lehtinen has said they’re moderates only in comparison to Hamas and should not be trusted. In fact, she’s said, “it’s time for us to kick the PLO out of the US once and for all.”
She has accused the administration of pressuring Israel to make concessions while “appeasing” it enemies, adding that “Palestinian leaders [should]... recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state before any discussions of a Palestinian state.”
Cantor has suggested linking $500 million in US aid to the PA to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Iran will be Ros-Lehtinen’s “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” priority – no doubt after fighting to continue the Cuba boycott – as HFAC chair and she’s said she wants to use oversight hearings to press the administration to get tougher with Teheran. She shares her friend Binyamin Netanyahu’s view that Iran is a more urgent threat and should be dealt with before the Palestinian issue.
DEMOCRATS FEAR Republicans will try to use Israel as a wedge issue – as then-majority leader Tom DeLay did in the 1990s – by pressing legislation and other initiatives taking hard-line positions on controversial topics like settlements, PLO diplomatic status and aid to the Palestinians to portray the White House and Democrats who don’t go along as anti-Israel.
Wedges like these are two-fers. They not only threaten political embarrassment for opponents but also can toss a wrench into administration diplomacy.
One example was legislation to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a measure intended to embarrass president Bill Clinton and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who were pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians. Clinton, like George W.
Bush after him, repeatedly exercised his waiver authority to delay the move; Ros- Lehtinen has introduced legislation to remove that presidential prerogative. If she succeeds, it could only do more damage to a peace process she disdains.
One congressional veteran sees friends of Israel on the Hill divided into two camps – the Yesha caucus, which essentially advances the interests of the settler movement, and the Meretz caucus – battling over who loves Israel more.
Making the case that Israel needs $3 billionplus is getting harder given its surging economy – and America’s sinking one. On the other side of the equation, the new aid cutters may be surprised when they learn that most of that money is spent for weapons systems that help create jobs in congressional districts around the US.
Ultimately, support for Israel on Capitol Hill is not measured by the highly charged language of toothless resolutions, letters and speeches, but in the tough votes for foreign aid and measures to advance peace between Israel and its neighbors. Those are the votes worth counting; all the rest is commentary.