As the longtime chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for appropriating aid to Israel, the outspoken Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) has had his share of run-ins with members of the organized Jewish community.
But now that Obey, 55, has been elevated to chairmanship of the full House Appropriations Committee, most pro-Israel activists here are saying he is someone with whom they can work as they push for continued high levels of U.S. aid to the Jewish state.
Obey, viewed overall as energetic, highly intelligent and at times confrontational, is perceived by most in the pro-Israel community to be supportive of Israel, especially of the current Labor government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
But over the years, the well-respected congressman, who does not mince his words, has had run-ins with some of Israel’s supporters, disagreeing with them over the issue of U.S. loan guarantees to Israel, for example.
In 1992, Obey was one of those in Congress arguing that Israel should end political settlements in the territories and bear the entire U.S. cost of loan guarantees before they were issued.
Most supporters of Israel here, including some on Capitol Hill, do not expect Obey’s promotion to the chairmanship of the committee to have much effect – either positive or negative – on the annual debate over Israel’s $3 billion in U.S. foreign aid.
“He will want to be supportive of the Labor government and the Clinton administration policies in the region, and he will try to be supportive of the peace process,” said Jess Hordes, Washington representative of the Anti- Defamation League.
“On the other hand,” Hordes continued, “he does not have a constituency back home that is very supportive of foreign aid. He’s pulled in different directions.”
Some in the pro-Israel community are hoping his focus on foreign aid will not be eclipsed by his new responsibilities on the domestic side. As chairman of the full committee he now has responsibility for appropriations for both domestic and foreign causes.
The organized Jewish community kept a low profile during the discussion over Obey’s elevation, but some pro-Israel members of Congress actively supported his bid.
“People are definitely O.K. about it,” one pro-Israel Hill staffer said of Obey’s new position.
The relatively youthful Obey was recently voted into the chairmanship by his colleagues, following the illness and subsequent death at age 84 of former chairman Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.) late last month.
Among Obey’s chief backers was Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a pro-Israel stalwart on the committee’s foreign operations subcommittee. Obey will continue to chair that subcommittee, a crucial waystation through which Israel’s annual $3 billion must pass.
Obey beat out Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa), 74, who was senior to Obey on the committee, for the chairmanship in a vote taken after it became apparent that Natcher’s illness was serious.
Sources in the pro-Israel community said they supported Obey over Smith, at least in part because of Obey’s active interest in foreign affairs.
Obey also received high marks for his intelligence. “He is very impressive,” said Jason Isaacson, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee. “Intellectually, he is one of the most insightful, provocative and knowledgeable members of Congress.”
Obey, who represents Wisconsin’s 7th district, has served in Congress since 1969. He has chaired the Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee since 1985.
Last year, he worked with Lowey to preserve $80 million in aid to Israel to resettle refugees from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
“Aid to Israel is key to her,” a Lowey staffer said of his boss. “She would not have been supporting him (for the chairmanship) if she thought it meant a possible reduction or putting the funds in jeopardy.”
Obey, a liberal, has been a strong proponent of economic reform in Israel and Egypt. At hearings of his subcommittee, he has asked administration officials to explain why high levels of aid to the two countries should continue if Israel and Egypt do not resolve their economic problems.
Egypt is another top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, getting $2.1 billion a year.
Over the years, Obey, an advocate of foreign aid reform, has clashed with some in the pro-Israel community on issues including protective “earmarks” for Israel’s foreign aid package. Maintaining Israel’s earmarks has long been a key objective for the pro-Israel community.
And in 1992, Obey planned to offer an amendment cutting 1 percent of foreign aid across the board to demonstrate that nothing should be exempt from cuts in a period of fiscal crisis.
But to the relief of Israel’s supporters, he then dropped the idea, stating that the subcommittee’s budget was “the tightest ever.”
Some supporters of Israel also cited Obey’s domestic record – which includes a pro-choice position on abortion – as a reason to support him. Most Jewish groups support a woman’s right to choose abortion.
“From his perspective, foreign aid cannot be politically supported if the government does not have a clear commitment to address the deficit, and the `social needs deficit,'” said Isaacson of AJCommittee.
Obey has demonstrated his commitment to both domestic and foreign objectives, Isaacson said.
Overall, the sense among some pro-Israel activists is that while Obey can be unpredictable, he is well-respected, and his support on pro-Israel issues has been, and will continue to be, very important.