Resignation of Newt Gingrich means Israel is losing a friend

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost his best friend in the U.S. Congress, and Israel lost its strongest supporter in the House Republican leadership when Newt Gingrich decided to step down as Speaker and retire.

The man most likely to succeed to the top job in the Congress, Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), can most charitably be described as a fair-weather friend of Israel.

My Democratic friends don't like to hear it, but Gingrich's pro-Israel bona fides are glatt kosher. He may be lousy on most of the domestic issues on the Jewish community's political agenda, but when it comes to Israel he's been an effective and informed leader.

Many of Gingrich's acolytes in the first Republican-led Congress in 40 years had campaigned against foreign aid and couldn't care less about international relations. But Gingrich, a historian with a world view and an established pro-Israel record, got a reluctant House to pass a foreign aid bill as favorable toward Israel as any passed by a Democratic Congress.

Livingston, whom Gingrich had jumped over more senior colleagues to make chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in 1995, voted for those bills. But he's also shown that he is willing to use foreign aid to pressure Israel. Last year he angrily threatened to halt all aid to Israel unless officials there violated their own laws and immediately shipped back a Maryland man, Samuel Scheinbein, who had fled there seeking sanctuary in the face of murder charges back home.

Livingston's volatile temper is familiar to viewers of C-SPAN, who are accustomed to seeing him turning red, waving a pointed finger and screaming during heated House debates, and this time he turned his wrath on Israel.

He didn't want to hear about the accused's rights under Israel's Law of Return, extradition procedures, due process of law or any other legal niceties. Treating Israel as some banana republic, an enraged Livingston demanded action, or else. Joining him in his irate announcements was Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Alabama), the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations, the one with jurisdiction over aid to Israel.

When the two most powerful appropriators in the House began screaming like that, Israel and its friends became understandably nervous. Only the personal intervention of Gingrich got them to back off.

Livingston has figured out that the per capita income of Israel is higher than that for his congressional district, and, according to a Republican Jewish activist familiar with his thinking, "that gives him great heartburn."

The United States is gradually weaning Israel off economic aid (transferring some of it to military assistance), but Livingston and Callahan, without Gingrich to rein them in, might decide to accelerate the process.

The biggest worry facing Israeli planners in the near term has to be the anticipated request for up to $1.2 billion to help Israel implement the Wye Memorandum's provisions.

Livingston is expected to be much tougher on paying for the military redeployment and other aspects of Wye, according to American and Israeli sources who have worked with him.

Livingston and Callahan do not have the close relationship with Netanyahu that Gingrich has enjoyed, nor are they likely to; neither has shown much interest.

The Netanyahu-Gingrich relationship is unusual in its closeness, or as one Israeli official described it, "coziness." The two men share a common political adversary, President Clinton.

Until this summer, the buzz at the Israeli Embassy was that Netanyahu spoke to Gingrich more often than to his own ambassador at the time, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, and the ambassador often found out what transpired when he saw it in the news media.

An Israeli official reports that Gingrich helped persuade a reluctant Netanyahu to go to the Wye River Summit. The Israeli paraphrased Gingrich's message: "It's time to do it at Wye; you've dragged it out long enough. Any more will work against you."

A prominent Republican Jewish activist said, "Bibi could go to Newt and get the Republican leadership lined up; that won't be true any more. Livingston won't be in Netanyahu's shoulder holster."

Livingston also lacks two other Gingrich assets: sympathetic staff and close ties to the national Jewish community, and particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Gingrich's chief of staff, Arne Christensen, is a former legislative director of AIPAC.

A Jewish Democratic politico said of Gingrich's pro-Israel credentials, "I don't think Newt is acting. I'd like to say he's full of it, but he isn't. Yes, he was trying to out right-wing the right-wing Jews, but he's a true believer. Livingston may say what AIPAC wants to hear, but it's not in his kishkes. He's not a true believer. "

After Gingrich, no one else in the top GOP House leadership and none of the leadership wannabes can match his pro-Israel credentials or relations with the Jewish community.

One more Republican who could be threatened by the conservative revolt is Rep. Benjamin Gilman, the easy-going moderate from upstate New York who chairs the International Relations Committee. He owes his post to Gingrich, who went against the wishes of some of the hardline conservatives unhappy with Gilman's reputation for bipartisanship.

Waiting anxiously in the wings to succeed Gilman, 76, is Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, the committee's second-ranking Republican. For now, insiders report Bereuter appears willing to wait until the 107th Congress to mount his challenge, hoping that Gilman, the only Jewish Republican in the 106th Congress, will decide to retire in 2000 after his 14th term.

Israel is not high on Bereuter's priority list, but he is no longer as hostile to pro-Israel lobbyists as he once was, they report. They consider him "evenhanded and fair."

The coming changes in the House GOP leadership are still developing, but one thing is already abundantly clear: Israel is losing a very valuable friend with Gingrich's resignation, and there is no replacement in sight on his side of the aisle.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.