WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (JTA) — For a lawmaker once considered a staunch opponent of the Jewish state, it seems ironic that Jesse Helms’s retirement will be lamented — though not quite mourned — by the pro-Israel community.
But while the five-term Republican senator from North Carolina has earned the support of pro-Israel activists, he has antagonized much of the Jewish community with his conservative stances on domestic issues.
On Wednesday, Helms, 79, announced his intention to retire when his term ends in 2002, setting off a race for his seat that is expected to be hotly contested.
Helms’ retirement leaves open several questions: Whether his replacement will prove an equally staunch ally of Israel, which party will control the next U.S. Senate — which currently is split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats — and how the loss of the conservative icon will affect some of Helms’ pet issues, such as abortion and school prayer.
First elected to the Senate in 1972, Helms angered pro-Israel groups during his first decade in office by consistently opposing aid to the Jewish state.
Helms took this position mainly because he believed the United States should not send direct aid to foreign countries. With Israel one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, however, Helms’ actions sometimes translated into a lack of support for the Jewish state.
In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon to eradicate the PLO’s mini-state and counter Syrian influence, Helms advocated “shutting down” relations with Israel.
But Helms changed his policies after his close re-election race against Democrat Jim Hunt in 1984, when Jews overwhelmingly supported Hunt.
A 1985 trip to Israel with a Jewish senator further changed Helms’ views on Israel — this time for good.
“It was a complete switch,” recalls Morris Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Part of the shift in Helms’ relations with Jewish activists resulted from an evolution of positions on the activists’ part, a Helms aide said. For example, some pro-Israel groups eventually came to support military assistance to relatively moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, a position Helms long had backed.
In the early 1990s, Helms, who served for years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stood up to then-Secretary of State James Baker and opposed the attempt to link billions of dollars in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In 1990 Helms signed a resolution declaring Jerusalem the “eternal, undivided capital of Israel,” and in 1995 he called for the U.S. Embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Both resolutions were supported by the overwhelming majority of senators.
AIPAC appreciated Helms’ firm stances on a number of issues — opposition to terrorism, holding Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat accountable for Palestinian terror, threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinians if they declared a state unilaterally and criticizing the United Nations for its hostility toward Israel.
But AIPAC never fully embraced Helms because of his continued aversion to foreign aid in general, a major issue for the lobbying group.
Indeed, Helms annually tried to block foreign aid packages, using a variety of parliamentary tactics.
In 1996, after President Clinton and former secretaries of state criticized Israeli settlement policies, Helms expressed solidarity with the Jewish state.
“There are voices who insist that it is incumbent upon the State of Israel to make all the sacrifices for peace. Do not count us among such people,” Helms wrote in a joint letter to Clinton with Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), then chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
But for all of his support for Israel, Helms’ conservative domestic agenda angered most Jewish groups.
Helms represented the conservative end of the Republican Party, speaking out loudly against abortion, fighting for prayer in public schools and opposing gay rights.
“Only 45 years after hundreds of thousands of European Jews and other civilians died at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis, we have forgotten the critical lesson of that atrocity — that all human life is sacred regardless of color, race, religion, or physical, or mental capabilities of that human being,” Helms said in 1993. “We are today reliving the Holocaust. We know it by a different name. It is called abortion.”
Recently, after a Supreme Court ruling allowed the Boy Scouts of America to bar the hiring of homosexuals, Helms authored an amendment warning public schools to provide the Scouts with equal access to school facilities or lose federal funds.
Helms described those trying to ban the Boy Scouts from campuses as “radical militants.”
Gay activists “demand that everybody else’s principles must be cast aside in order to protect the right of homosexual conduct,” he said earlier this year.
Despite his support for Israel, Helms did not enjoy broad support in the Jewish community because most American Jews identified him with his views on social issues, according to Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Indeed, one long-time Jewish Democratic strategist said some American Jews who wanted to support Helms because of his pro-Israel stance were too upset to do so because of his domestic views.
“I can’t tell you how many times people came to me and said, ‘I’m pro-Israel, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to support Jesse Helms,’ ” the strategist said.
On Wednesday, Helms said he was retiring to spend more time with his family. Over the past few years, he has suffered from a variety of health ailments.
The field of candidates for Helms’ seat likely will be crowded, as both parties will be fighting for the majority in the Senate.
One-time GOP presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole could make a run for her party’s nomination, while North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall already entered the race on the Democratic side.