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Will New 'Tea-Infused' Congress Make Israel a Wedge Issue?

January 6, 2011 By:
Douglas Bloomfield
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Douglas Bloomfield

 

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.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated that Israel's $3 billion annual aid package may not be immune to cuts. 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 that foreign aid is on the chopping block, and "no country should be overlooked."

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 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 among the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians. Don't be surprised if the first to oppose the plan will be the Israelis, because the move would only complicate their already uneasy relations with their neighbors. The idea deserves a quick death.

Palestinians said they were offended by the House's passage last week of a nonbinding resolution warning them against unilaterally declaring a state, but the message was aimed at the Republican leadership as well as the Palestinians, according to some Hill insiders.

They report that the Democrats wanted to put the House on record backing the two-state approach to peace before this month's GOP takeover. Although Ros-Lehtinen was a sponsor of the resolution, Democrats feared that if it was brought up after she becomes chairman, 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 Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, while Ros-Lehtinen has said that they're moderates only in comparison to Hamas and should not be trusted.

She has accused the administration of pressuring Israel to make concessions while "appeasing" its 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 U.S. aid to the Palestinians to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Iran will be Ros-Lehtinen's "No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3" priority as HFAC chair, and she's said she wants to use oversight hearings to press the administration to get tougher with Tehran. She shares her friend Benjamin Netanyahu's view that Iran is an urgent threat.

Democrats fear that Republicans will try to use Israel as a wedge issue by pressing legislation and other initiatives taking hard-line positions on controversial topics like settlements, PLO diplomatic status and aid to the Palestinians in order 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 can also toss a wrench into administration diplomacy.

One congressional veteran sees friends of Israel on the Hill divided into two camps -- the Yesha caucus, which advances the interests of the settler movement; and the Meretz caucus, named for a leftist Israeli peace party -- battling over who loves Israel more.

Making the case for $3 billion-plus in aid is getting harder given Israel's 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 United States.

Ultimately, support for Israel on Capitol Hill is measured by the tough votes for foreign aid and measures to advance peace. Those are the votes worth counting; all the rest is commentary.

Douglas Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.

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