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A Powerful Friend to Israel May Have to Leave House Post

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An advocate for Israel during his stint as chair of the House’s International Relations Committee may be forced to step down from that post as part of the Republicans’ six-year term limit on committee chairs.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), the only Jewish Republican lawmaker, is attempting to gain a waiver, but GOP leaders re-emphasized their commitment to the six-year limit during a caucus Wednesday. That leaves Gilman, and several other veteran lawmakers, with few options for retaining power on the committees they have led.

“Mr. Gilman has had conversations with the leadership about what is going to happen next year,” said Lester Munson, spokesman for the committee. He declined further comment.

Israeli policy analysts, who see Gilman’s departure from the chair as a key loss, describe him as a consistent, effective and thoughtful voice on behalf of Israel. But despite that, no real shift in policy or Israel is expected and analysts believe the committee will still make Israel a priority.

“We think [Gilman] will continue to find ways to be an activist on pro-Israel issues and his influence on the committee will still be very strong,” said Kenneth Bricker, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Gilman became committee chairman in 1995 after Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress. Gilman had previously served as Republican leader of a Middle East subcommittee, which was dissolved so Gilman could handle the region’s issues himself as committee chairman. There is speculation that the Middle East subcommittee could be formed again as a platform for Gilman.

Munson said he is unaware of any plans to revive the Middle East subcommittee, but said the congressman is seeking to maintain his leadership role on Middle East issues.

“It was very clear and very obvious that Benjamin Gilman was a warrior for issues of concern to the pro-Israel community,” Bricker said. “In that role, he will be missed.”

Gilman gained wide support for his pro-Israel viewpoints and actions.

“We might differ on interpretations of what is in Israel’s best interest, but I don’t think anyone can fault the basic intent of what he is trying to do,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

Gilman’s hard-line approach toward the Palestinians has sometimes fallen to the right of the Clinton administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Gilman has been more skeptical of the Palestinian leadership and has tried to hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for commitments made in previous peace accords.

Gilman spearheaded legislation this fall, opposed by Clinton, that would have cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it unilaterally declared a Palestinian state. That bill, which passed the House, had the support of several Jewish groups. Gilman was also seen as a staunch supporter of reparations for victims of Middle East violence.

His support for Israel, however, has been seen by some as a possible detriment to the peace process.

In contention for the committee chair are three senior members of the panel: Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.).

All three have been generally supportive of pro-Israel legislation, especially foreign aid, Bricker said. Hyde and Leach co-sponsored legislation in 1995 to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Bereuter voted against that legislation, but has supported other bills that recognized Jerusalem as the capital city and has supported Israel on sanctions for Iraq and Iran and the peace process.

“The lineup on both sides of the aisle is very attentive to the security needs of Israel and are activists of a close U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Jason Issacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “They get it.”

The International Relations committee is also switching leaders on the Democrats’ side. The defeat of Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) has paved the way for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) as ranking minority member.

Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, is seen as a strong advocate for Israel. His role on the committee may increase because of the close split between Republicans and Democrats in the House.

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