Posted on December 05, 1994 in Washington Watch

6When assessing the role of the American Jewish community will play in lobbying the next Congress, surface numbers can be misleading. The contributions of pro-Israel political actions committees (PACs), for example, are way down. From a high in 1988 of $4.6 million, the total contributions have fallen to $1.2 million this year. The number of Jewish members of Congress drop this year from 10 Senators and 32 Congressmen in the last Congress to 9 Senators and 23 Congressmen in the next.

And while the liberal social agenda shared by most American Jews is threatened in the hands of the new conservative-led Congress, the new Congress will also be more stridently pro-Israel (if that can be believed) than in the past. It is in this context that the Jewish community is actively debating the effects of the 1994 congressional elections on their ability to pursue their agenda in 1995-96.

Historically, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community has voted for Democrats, and this past election was no exception. While the national vote was split evenly (50%-50%) between the Democratic and Republican parties (due to the fact that several Democratic incumbents won by large margins, while many Republican victors won by narrow margins), the Jewish vote, on the other hand went 78% for the Democrats.

The American Jewish community has been aligned with the Democratic party largely because of the party’s social agenda: social liberalism, a commitment to civil rights, feminism, abortion rights, a redistributive tax policy, and the separation of church and state – all are major domestic concerns of the Jewish community. Many American Jewish leaders are now worried that progress already achieved on these issues may be rolled back and new progress made impossible by the more conservative leadership recently elected to Congress.

Indeed, the early initiatives calling for a constitutional amendment supporting prayer in the U.S. public school system has caused great concern among liberal Jews (and many liberal Protestant Christian denominations, as well). They fear that such an amendment would erode the separation between religion and the state which small religious minorities see as an important protection of their rights.

But while liberal Jews have historically led the community, there is a vocal and increasingly active minority of conservative Orthodox Jews who have become organized against this liberal agenda – and are now voting Republican and creating a deep fissure within the American Jewish community.

In the past, both the dominant liberal and minority conservative wings of the Jewish community were at least united on issues of foreign policy; but now, in the face of a Labor government in Israel that has made some peace with the Palestinians, there is even a rift on that question.

The more liberal Jewish leadership maintains that they have no problem with the Republican sweep of the November elections. They note a history of strong bipartisan support for Israel and its policies, a make brave public comments to that effect. AN AIPAC leader recently noted, “these guys are all friends of Israel.” But in private, these same liberal Jewish leaders express a fear that the newly elevated conservative Republican leadership in Washington and their conservative supporters in the Jewish community do not share their support for the Labor government of Israel or for the basic tenets of the peace process itself.

The Democrats who ruled Congress for 40 years consistently supported Israel, that is, whatever Israeli government was in power. At times, Congress would pursue the Israeli government’s agenda even when it directly challenged the policy of the U.S. Administration. Congress would take these actions at the behest of the powerful pro-Israel lobby which either supported their election campaigns or threatened to work against their reelections.

More often than not, the scene in Washington was one of Congress pushing and the Administration seeking to restrain excessive Congressional action – on Jerusalem, on restricting arms sales to Arab countries, or on denying aid to Arab countries – with successive Administrations feeling quite threatened by this Congressional pressure. It is this interplay that has often shaped the Middle East policy debate in the United States.

With the Republican takeover, this dynamic will be somewhat altered. There will not only be new players in leadership roles, but these new leaders in the House and Senate are driven by ideologies which are more stridently pro-Israel than their predecessors, though not necessarily tied to the Israeli government in power.

Some pro-Israel lobbyists (both liberal and conservative) are celebrating the diminished roles of some of Israel’s Democratic nemeses in Congress. No longer will Israeli policy be questioned by such Democratic committee chairman as Congressman Lee Hamilton (outgoing Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee), Congressman David Obey (outgoing Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee), Senator Patrick Leahy (outgoing Chairman of the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee), and House Majority Whip David Bonior. All of these Democrats were strongly opposed to Israeli settlement policies and, while not supported by the majority of their own party, they were frequently able to act as a thorn in Israel’s side.

Replacing this Democratic leadership will be Congressman Newt Gingrich (the new Speaker of the House who only last month cosponsored a letter to President Clinton that opposed Administration actions which – in accordance with the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles – have treated the status of Jerusalem as undetermined and argued instead that all of Jerusalem should remain solely under Israeli sovereignty), Senator Mitch McConnell (incoming Chairman of the Foreign Operations subcommittee who is also one of the largest recipients of pro-Israel PAC funds and holder one of the most pro-Israel voting records in the Senate), Senator Arlen Specter (incoming Chairman of the Technology and the Law subcommittee and founder of the anti-peace process “monitoring committee” in the Senate), Senator Robert Packwood (incoming Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the most pro-Israel member of either House of Congress) and Senator Jesse Helms (incoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee).

The two most central forces driving the Middle East policy debate in the Republican party today are the neoconservatives and Christian right wing. Both of these groups, while strongly allied to former President Reagan, were opponents of President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. These two forces, for different reasons, have a narrow Israel-centered view of the Middle East and are more strongly allied with the position of the Likud than with that of the Labor party of Prime Minister Rabin.

As a group, they will exert real pressure on the White House on a number of Middle East-related issues – and not only because they are Republicans who will be able to obstruct the foreign policy of a Democratic President, but also because they are not committed support the Labor government in Israel.

Senator Helms, for example, while questioning foreign aid in general (he likened it to poring money down “foreign rat holes”) had the following to say to Itamar Rabinovich, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. in a meeting just two weeks ago:

“If Israel hadn’t existed in the Middle East it would have had to be invented, because the United States could have found itself in sad shape. Anyone who wants to understand Israel’s importance to the United States needs to figure out how much the defense of the region would have rested in the Pentagon’s budget without it.”

In the Gingrich letter to the President, Jerusalem was described in the following way:

“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital – and only Israel’s capital – and that it must remain a united city under Israeli sovereignty. ....we support the action taken by the U.S. Congress to prohibit any new offices or official meetings in Jerusalem to deal with the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem is the capital of only one country, Israel, and we urge you to implement a policy that does not in any way support a Palestinian claim to the city.”

And Senator Specter’s Peace Accords’ Monitoring Committee (PAM), whose creation was opposed by the Rabin government, succeeded in conditioning U.S. aid to the Palestinians and passing other legislation that attempts to tie the hands of the Administration with regard to Palestinian aid and to dealing with Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem.

Not only are Democrats temporarily down on the Hill, but the more traditional pro-Israel lobby (AIPAC) may also be negatively affected by the fall elections.

AIPAC has always played by the rules traditionally accepted by the mainstream of the American Jewish community – they support whatever Israeli government is in office. Since the start of the peace process, AIPAC has been challenged by an upstart group, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) which, in violation of the above-mentioned rule, has severely criticized the Labor government policies and pushed its allies in Congress to criticize or encumber the peace process with negative legislation.

While AIPAC has stated that they are confident that they can work with the new Congress, most analysts of the American Jewish community feel that the ZOA’s star is rising on Capitol Hill.

Already ZOA President Mort Klein has expressed his strong support for Senator Jesse Helms (Helms has joined the ZOA-sponsored PAM committee which the outgoing Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic senator Claiborn Pell, refused to join), and he is extremely pleased that two of his strongest allies, Senators Specter and Shelby (a former Democrat who recently switched to the Republican party) will be in a strong position to carry out his group’s agenda.

In short, the final assessment of the impact of the Republican takeover on the Jewish community is mixed:

· the liberal Jewish social agenda will be threatened;
· the liberal-conservative split within the American Jewish community will deepen;
· the newly organized (and even radicalized) Orthodox Jewish community will become a force with which others will be forced to contend in U.S. politics;
· American Jews will no longer be regarded as monolithically liberal Democrats;
· pro-Israel PAC money and individual contributions to candidates, while still an important factor in elections, will not play as powerful a role as it has in the past. With neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalist ideology is a more significant factor in their pro-Israel stance;
· the peace process, as it is presently constructed, will face real challenges because the next Congress will not be inclined to give either the Democratic President or the Labor government of Israel an opportunity for a new ceremony on the White House lawn before 1996. Progress may still be made, but it will not be easy.

The results of the elections pose new difficulties to an already encumbered peace process.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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