New US Congress will be missing some of its longtime pro-Israel pillars

Retirements and defeats mean a new group of supporters will take the reins on Middle East issues

Rep. Gary Ackerman (Courtesy of the Israel Policy Forum via JTA)
Rep. Gary Ackerman (Courtesy of the Israel Policy Forum via JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When the new Congress convenes in January, it will be missing several longtime pillars of support for Israel on Capitol Hill.

Gone from the House of Representatives will be veteran Jewish Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the ranking member on the committee’s Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee; and Steve Rothman (D-NJ), a point person on funding Israel’s missile defense efforts. Absent from the Senate will be Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Jewish politics watchers agree that the departures represent a loss of pro-Israel brainpower of a scope not seen for years.

“People like Berman and Ackerman — both Congress and the pro-Israel community will miss having people of that seniority who know issues inside and out,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the dovish Israel policy group J Street, referring to the top senior Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee, each of whom served in Congress for 30 years.

Martin Frost, a Jewish Democrat who represented Texas in Congress from 1979 to 2005, said that Berman’s departure is a “a real loss.” But he expressed confidence that support for Israel would remain strong.

“You always hate to lose anyone, but I think we’re in good shape,” Frost said.

The reasons for the departures vary: Berman and Rothman were defeated in intra-party battles sparked by redistricting, while Ackerman and Lieberman are retiring. Other notable departures of Jewish pro-Israel lawmakers include Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a leading liberal who is retiring, and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), a hawkish voice on Israel who was defeated in her bid for a Senate seat.

A staffer for a House Democrat said the loss of veteran Jewish lawmakers is significant in that their colleagues looked to them for guidance on Israel-related issues.

“They connect the dots — they look at the big board and see how a leader on a particular issue votes,” said the staffer, who asked not to be identified, citing Capitol Hill protocol. “There are a lot fewer data points now for them to work with.”

‘The generation that’s leaving . . . grew up in the formative years of Israel and understand what the struggle was’

The staffer said that top Jewish lawmakers would garner support for Israel by showing leadership in other areas embraced by Democrats.

“The real concern I have is how those older members functioned in the caucus as a whole — that because they were good Democrats, what they favored was seen as good for Democrats,” the staffer said.

Multiple sources cited as a particular blow the loss of Berman, whose long congressional career is coming to an end following his defeat by fellow Jewish incumbent Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in a bitterly contested race.

“Howard Berman had the ability to work across the aisle,” said Douglas Bloomfield, an opinion columnist for Jewish media outlets who in the 1980s was the legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He was a legislator as well as a policy person. He was a respected voice. People took him seriously.”

Berman was seen as critical to brokering the deal that achieved overwhelming congressional backing for enhanced Iran sanctions in 2010. He worked closely with the Obama administration on the issue.

“Howard was beloved by everybody,” said Ira Forman, who headed the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach efforts and is a former president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “AIPAC people like him; people who were dovish like him.”

Also on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who is considered a strong ally of Israel, is relinquishing her post as the committee’s chairwoman, as required under House Republican Caucus rules that limit how long its members can serve in committee leadership roles.

Even with the loss of so many veteran pro-Israel voices, observers stress that there are still devoted friends of Israel in key congressional positions.

‘Because they were good Democrats, what they favored was seen as good for Democrats’

They include Jewish pro-Israel stalwarts such as Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who now leads Democrats on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who is replacing Berman as the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Engel knows his stuff very well — he is similar to Shelley [Berkley] in being a real pro-Israel stalwart,” Forman said.

Engel at times has taken a more critical stance than Berman toward the Obama administration’s approach to Israel.

Newer members also may find themselves taking more of a leadership role on Israel issues. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), elected in 2010, already is a leader on Iran sanctions, and Rep.-elect Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) has strong ties to Chicago-area chapters of pro-Israel groups.

“The longer I’ve been in Congress, the more I see that Congress is a living body. We lose some good people and we gain some good people,” Engel said.

Engel said there is “an excellent crop” of incoming freshmen, and that “those of us who are around have been around for a while. We’re eager to carry the torch.”

But Bloomfield suggested that an emerging generation of Democrats could spell long-term changes in the traditional structure of two-party support for Israel.

Younger Democrats, he said, do not naturally come by the sympathies Israel accrued when it was under attack in its earlier decades. Additionally, Bloomfield said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish policies alienate a demographic that favors Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

“The generation that’s leaving . . . these are guys who grew up in the formative years of Israel and understand what the struggle was,” Bloomfield said. “They are being replaced by a post-1967 generation who know not a threatened Israel, a vulnerable Israel — who know a muscular Israel.”

But Engel said he did not perceive a significant shift in how members of Congress relate to Israel.

“There are a handful of people in the Democratic Party that see things in a different light, and there are a handful of people in the Republican Party that see things in a different light,” he said. “The overwhelming majority understands that Israel is a strategic ally and the United States has a stake in the Middle East in the survival of Israel.”

Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC foreign policy chief who now trains Europeans in pro-Israel advocacy, said the Democratic Party’s rank and file is likelier to question Israel than in the past.

‘The overwhelming majority understands that Israel is a strategic ally’

“What’s striking is how many of the shtarkers of the Democratic Party are leaving,” Rosen said, using the Yiddish term for “big shot,” “and people coming in have weaker ties and have been subject to a propaganda effort by the Jewish left, which has presented to them a set of ideas that are outside the Israeli mainstream.”

Rosen cited the influence of J Street and journalist Peter Beinart, who argues that Israeli policies have alienated young American Jews.

J Street itself claimed that the congressional election results were a “victory,” noting that of 71 congressional candidates backed by J Street’s political action committee, 70 won — all of them Democrats.

Rosen, however, questioned the extent of J Street’s victory. He wrote in an article for Foreign Policy magazine that most of the candidates backed by J Street also were supported by political action committees and individuals aligned with AIPAC.

Ben-Ami, for his part, said the successes of J Street-backed candidates should be seen as not as a diminution of pro-Israel support, but of its future shape.

“Forty or 50 years ago, it was a different relationship than it is today,” he said of US-Israel ties. “The interests of the United States and Israel dovetail in a place where you want to see a US policy set that leads into the resolution of this conflict.”

Even among veteran pro-Israel members of Congress, there has been some strong criticism of the Israeli government recently over its approach to relations with both the Palestinians and the Obama administration.

In an interview with Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) blasted Netanyahu for announcing plans for new building in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“It’s an indication of Israel’s continuing to stick a thumb in the eye of the Palestinians,” she said. “I am profoundly disappointed.”

At a Dec. 2 Israel Policy Forum event in New York, Ackerman — who is known for his sharp tongue — took a thinly veiled dig at Netanyahu. He praised former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was in attendance, as “most famous for his activity as a prime minister who went to the White House and did not piss on the president’s shoe. It’s only common sense.”

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