New Republican Congress retains a pro-Israel bent

WASHINGTON — Pro-Israel activists say they are confident their legislative priorities will be able to get through the new Congress, which gained Republican control in Tuesday's election.

In a sweep that elated Republicans and stunned Democrats, the GOP retook control of the Senate and retained the House of Representatives.

In the final election returns, which came early Wednesday morning, a predominance of pro-Israel lawmakers retained their seats, and several new faces emerged, many of whom pro-Israel officials called promising.

The new Congress will take office at a critical time in U.S.-Israel relations, with Israel entering a heated election campaign, prospects for peace with the Palestinians at a standstill and a U.S.-led war against Iraq looming.

The congressional approach to Israel and the Middle East are a significant component in those relations.

Among the winners in this week's elections were two new Jewish senators, Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who returns to the Senate after a two-year absence, and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is Jewish and a former mayor of St. Paul, will take the seat of the late Paul Wellstone.

While American Jewish leaders were closely watching the poll results, there was not much concern: Officials had said they were comfortable with the candidates from both major parties in most of the congressional races.

"Everyone seems to be very good nowadays," said Morris Amitay, a veteran Jewish activist who is treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

While the Jewish community is predominantly Democratic, Jewish groups have had much success getting legislation passed in a Republican House.

Prior to the election, many said they believed they would have success no matter which party controls the Senate because it is a bipartisan issue.

Many of the candidates the pro-Israel community targeted for defeat were eliminated in primaries or were not seeking re-election.

The lone area of concern seemed to be the New Hampshire Sentate race, where Rep. John Sununu, a Republican of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, defeated the state's Democratic governor, Jeanne Shaheen.

The National Jewish Democratic Council had blasted Sununu for not supporting several resolutions regarding Israel, including one criticizing the United Nations for passing anti-Israel resolutions and another seeking information on Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, conceded that Sununu has had a "less than stellar record of support."

Yet, Brooks said that during the race Sununu "wrote an encouraging position paper" that reaffirmed his commitment to foreign aid and stressed the need to maintain Israel's military superiority in the Middle East and protect Israel's security.

"We look forward to seeing how his support evolves and grows in the Senate," Brooks said.

Besides the election of two new Jewish senators, Lautenberg in New Jersey and Coleman in Minnesota, other races that have drawn close attention include:

*Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Max Cleland, in Georgia. Chambliss had criticized Cleland for being reluctant to speak out against comments made by ousted Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) that were deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

*Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will fill the seat of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the retiring senior senator from South Carolina, having defeated his Democratic challenger, Alex Sanders. Graham spoke last month at the Christian Coalition's rally for Israel in Washington, and is believed to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state.

*Democrat Mark Pryor, Arkansas' attorney general, defeated the incumbent Republican, Sen. Tim Hutchinson. Pryor, who provided one of the few Senate victories — and the only new Democratic seat — for his party, is the son of former Sen. David Pryor, who served three terms starting in 1979.

*Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) overcame a formidable challenge by Democrat Tom Strickland to win his second term in Colorado. Allard told the Intermountain Jewish News that the United States should be cooperating more with Israel on missile defense issues.

In the House:

*Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) easily won his re-election, foisting on him the new role as the only Jewish Republican member of the House. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) is retiring. Cantor is an avid supporter of Israel and has authored several hawkish resolutions, which were not brought to the floor — and which were not universally supported by the pro-Israel community. One called for the end of aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including humanitarian aid distributed by the United States Agency for International Development.

*Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) lost her seat in Maryland to Democratic challenger, Chris Van Hollen. Morella was a strong advocate for Israel, having co-sponsored legislation seeking sanctions against Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. She has traveled to Israel several times, as has Van Hollen, a former staffer of the House International Relations Committee, who is considered very knowledgeable on the Middle East.

The 108th Congress will get down to work in early January as both Israel and the Palestinians prepare for elections of their own, and as the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq is still an unknown.

Against this backdrop, pro-Israel advocates say their agenda for the next two years will focus on legislation that did not get passed this year.

Those measures include:

*An additional $200 million in aid to Israel is expected to be tackled by the lame-duck Congress later this month. That will be wrapped into the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel.

*The Palestinian reform bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials, restrict travel of Palestinian officials and freeze the American assets of Palestinian leaders.

*The Syria Accountability Act would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria, and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.

Jewish officials say a Republican majority in Congress could move the flow of legislation faster than in a divided body where partisan issues are paramount.

However, the Republican-led House still battled with the White House on several bills related to the Middle East, with the Bush administration complaining that the bills tie its hands and make it harder to implement foreign policy.

But House Republicans have been able to prevail, pushing through a pro-Israel resolution last spring that called on the United States to provide additional aid to Israel and condemning "the ongoing support of terror'' by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.

Other variables, such as the changing makeup of the Israeli government after the Labor Party's departure last week and upcoming Israeli elections, could affect congressional action on the Middle East.

U.S. action against Iraq could change things as well.

If the United States attacks Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, lawmakers are expected to rally around the flag in support of the president. This could push other Middle East issues off the agenda and make it difficult for Jewish groups to pursue legislation.

However, Congress would be likely to offer strong support for Israel's right to defend itself if attacked by Iraq in the course of a U.S.-led war.

There also are more subtle variables in the next Congress.

Gilman, the Jewish Republican from New York, is vacating the chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee's Middle East panel.

Congressional officials say the Middle East portfolio is expected to come under the auspices of the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

If the Middle East subcommittee remains separate, possible Republican chairpersons include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a strong Israel backer, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a lawmaker who has frequently voted against pro-Israel resolutions and foreign aid.