The decline and fall of Rep. Tom DeLay could prove to be good news for the pro-Israel cause and Republicans eager to woo Jewish voters.
But it will only happen if the disgraced former House majority leader takes with him the bitter partisanship and extremism that have defined his tenure on Capitol Hill.
The Texas Republican was an uncomfortable ally for many centrist pro-Israel activists, defying the tradition of bipartisan support at the foundation of pro-Israel activism. Instead, DeLay used Israel – and his support for Israel's most right-wing factions – to try to drive a partisan wedge between Jews and Democrats, often with the acquiescence of intimidated Jewish leaders fearful of offending the most powerful man on Capitol Hill.
Election results showed he only succeeded in keeping Jewish voters in the Democratic column, but he may have eroded the bipartisanship that has historically been a pillar of the pro-Israel movement.
Some potential supporters of Israel were undoubtedly turned off because they didn't want to be associated with him and the extremist groups with which he allied himself. His religious zealotry and advocacy of a Christian nation raised further questions about the underlying motivation of his support for Israel.
DeLay's efforts to cast himself in the role of super-Christian Zionist – admonishing Israelis not to compromise with Palestinians by giving up an inch of occupied territory – was anathema to most Jews. Compounding that was his ultra-conservative brand of domestic politics roundly rejected by most Jewish voters.
Israel's uncompromising right has lost an enthusiastic ally, but his support was a chimera. In fact, he simply gave false hope and comfort to those who thought they could mobilize friends on Capitol Hill to block any possible American or Israeli moves toward peace and reconciliation with the Arabs.
DeLay misread the Jewish community and the Israeli public, and he misled Israel's friends and foes alike, but it wasn't entirely his fault. He was the second most powerful man in Washington, and was lionized by the likes of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Israeli ambassador.
But silence when they should have been speaking out in disagreement with him has fed the impression that DeLay spoke for the Jewish community. That only served to discourage pro-Israel political activism and potential coalition partners.
From 8,000 miles away in Sugar Land, Texas, DeLay was generous with his advice and prepared to fight to the last Israeli to prevent compromise with the Palestinians. He went to the West Bank, to Gaza and to the Golan Heights, and said he saw no occupied territory, only Israel. Israeli officials who should have known better only encouraged him with fulsome praise.
Allowing religious extremists like DeLay – one of the most divisive people in America – to use the Jewish state to advance their political agenda undermines the goal of building a broadly-based consensus in support of Israel, and associates the pro-Israel movement with some of the most divisive elements in American politics.
Jewish groups have an interest in Congress finding middle ground on issues, foreign and domestic, and the former majority leader has been a polarizing figure who spent his career doing just the opposite. DeLay's idea of a coalition is joining the far right with the extreme right.
DeLay personified the major reason so few Jews vote Republican, differing with the Jewish mainstream on critical issues such as church-state separation, religious tolerance, civil liberties, social welfare, reproductive rights, gay rights and an independent judiciary.
Not all Jews feared his sectarian agenda; many religious Jews saw DeLay as a political messiah who not only shared their hard-line views of the Middle East but, more importantly, held out the hope of opening the federal treasury for financing their parochial institutions.
Notwithstanding his avowed love of Zion, DeLay was a liability to the Jewish community and Israel. And he was a liability for Jewish Republicans, who won't see their efforts to woo Jewish voters to their column bear fruit as long as the DeLays are in control.
The challenge facing pro-Israel leaders is to use this opportunity to move back toward the mainstream and rebuild a bipartisan consensus. It's time to stop playing pawns in partisan wars.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.