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Election ’91: Shake-up in Senate and House Poses Tough Challenge for Jews [part 1 of a Series]

Next week’s U.S. elections will produce a thunderous shake-up in Congress, the combined effect of redistricting, retirements, scandals, and public fury over a plodding and unresponsive government.

The upheaval could set back some items on the Jewish agenda, such as foreign aid, and advance others on the domestic front, including religious freedom and abortion rights, Jewish political activists say.

Up to 150 incumbents, including highly placed champions of Israel, are slated to leave Capitol Hill behind. They will make way for a new crop of lawmakers charged by voters to change the status-quo way of doing business that the Jewish community has come to rely upon to further its interests.

Many analysts, and not only Jews, fear the case for foreign aid will be harder to make in the reconfigured Congress. The lawmakers, they point out, will have been elected during a recession on a mandate to pay more attention — and money from the Treasury — to problems at home than abroad.

That mandate was driven home hard to nine-term, pro-Israel Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), whose hallmark has been his expertise and clout on foreign policy. Solarz, tainted by the House bank overdraft scandal, was ousted in his primary by a newly drawn, largely Hispanic district that cared more about domestic problems.

‘FRIENDS OF ISRAEL ARE LEAVING’

Abba Cohen, Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, is deeply concerned about the shake-up.

“Many, many friends of Israel are leaving, while not as many antagonists are,” he said. “This could be a watershed in Israel-Congress relations” at a time when the pressures of the peace process on Israel make congressional backing especially important.

In the Senate, there will be 35 contests on Nov. 3, with about a third expected to usher in new faces, including several Jews. But several pro-Israel heavy hitters are at risk of losing their seats.

Among those leaving the House are key members of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the pro-Israel lobby has counted as loyalists.

The volatility in the makeup of the Foreign Affairs Committee is not unique. Forty percent of the membership of committees in the House is likely to be new.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the Jewish community will need to be “vigilant” in the aftermath of the elections when it comes to filling the slots in the key committees. “Appointments made now will shape policy for years to come,” he said.

But he and others point out that even if there is a congressional backlash against foreign aid, both prospective Clinton and Bush administrations stand committed to an active U.S. international role and strong support for Israel.

They also believe that the election last summer of a moderate Israeli government will make Israel’s case in Congress easier to sell than it was under the previous hard-line Likud regime.

Jason Isaacson, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee, said that while there may be “subtle shifts” in policy priorities next year, he does not envision a dramatic change in the U.S. international posture under the leadership of either Bush or Clinton.

“I don’t see us turning a deaf ear to the problems of the world,” said Isaacson.

AIPAC EXPRESSES CONFIDENCE

Instead, his biggest concern is a fiscal crisis that could limit “the tools and flexibility available to a new administration and Congress to deal with problems,” both foreign and domestic, he said.

A senior policy analyst with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was confident the new Congress would be receptive to AIPAC’s agenda. She said the lobby’s staffers and activists have met with nearly 600 candidates running for the House “who have expressed support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

“Almost all have established close relationships with local pro-Israel activists,” she added.

And Tom Dine, AIPAC’s executive director, sounded almost sanguine. “On the surface, the change may look to be of concern because many good friends will not be returning,” he said. “Yet no matter what the final outcome of Nov. 3, the 103rd Congress will be filled with pro-Israel members.”

“We are not going to see a house full of isolationists,” said the lobby’s policy analyst. “Despite the fact that foreign aid has been a political football this year, hundreds of these candidates have stated their support” for it.

But Democratic analyst Ann Lewis believes the community should brace for a sweeping change. “I would be surprised if anyone who has thought through the dynamic of doing business with a new Congress is not concerned,” she said.

Even the post-Watergate 1974 class of freshmen legislators came in with a commitment to clean up the system, said Lewis. The current candidates are “coming in with no commitment to the system,” elected sometimes solely on pledges to lower taxes and reduce the deficit, she said.

This poses a challenge to the Jewish community, said Lewis, which “has been able to leverage our participation as citizens and our ability to work within the system.”

Thus the task that lies ahead is more than merely “substituting the new faces and the new names” for the old ones, she said.

CHALLENGE IS ‘NOT TO BE MYOPIC’

Diana Aviv, associate executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, agreed. The victors are “riding in on the coattails of an anti-incumbency mood,” she said, and many of those incumbents were “tarnished with a brush of pandering to special interests.”

That means any group with a specific agenda, such as the Jews, will face the task of educating new members, she said. “The old commitments aren’t there.”

Aviv cautioned against pushing the pro-Israel agenda at the expense of the domestic one.

“The challenge of the Jewish community is not to be myopic, but to take on domestic and foreign agendas as a partnership, to tell them we care as much about the United States as Israel,” she said. “Being a one-issue community will (yield only) a short-term gain.”

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