New Congress missing longtime pro-Israel stalwarts

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-San Fernando Valley), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the ranking member on the committee’s Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee; and Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), 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 the departures represent a loss of pro-Israel brainpower of a scope not seen for years.

Rep. Gary Ackerman addresses the Israel Policy Forum on Dec. 3. photo/courtesy of ipf

“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.

The reasons for the departures vary: Berman and Rothman were defeated in intraparty 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.”

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-San Fernando Valley) 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 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.

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 the 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.

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

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

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, 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.”

Even among veteran pro-Israel members of Congress, there has been 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, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein 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.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief