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On Somber Day, Delay’s Spirits Raised by Pro-israel Group’s Support

Just hours after Tom DeLay stepped aside as a Republican leader because of his indictment in a campaign finance scandal, he walked into a standing ovation from people who think the Texan’s views on money, demographics and borders are just fine. Just fine when it comes to the Middle East, that is.

“We love you Tom!” screamed supporters at the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a pro-Zionist group that hosted a conference in Washington this week.

The Republican majority leader’s temporary resignation on Sept. 28 embittered not just the network of corporate and social conservatives whose causes he forcefully championed, but also the pro-settler lobby in the United States.

“Tom DeLay has been a friend of Israel through thick and thin, and we are pleased and proud to welcome him this evening as a friend of Israel,” Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, the IFCJ founder, said in introducing DeLay.

“You’re choking me up here,” DeLay responded.

In a Congress generally regarded as overwhelmingly pro-Israel, DeLay stood out for extending those sympathies to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even standing with them against Israel’s government.

Jewish leaders were stunned this summer when DeLay told a closed meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that instead of relinquishing the Gaza Strip, Israel by biblical rights should be expanding its territory.

Gary Bauer, a onetime Republican presidential candidate who helped organize the IFCJ event this week, persuaded DeLay not to cancel his scheduled appearance despite the indictment, telling the congressman he would receive a much-needed warm welcome.

And he did.

“So how was your day?” he said to laughter and applause. “Thank you for allowing me to come under the present circumstances.”

The charges against DeLay are based on accusations that he played a role in circumventing a Texas law that bans the use of corporate money in state elections.

The prosecutor in the case, a Democrat, alleges that the money funded a Republican victory in the Texas legislature in 2002. The legislature re-drew the congressional map in Texas in the 2004 elections, consolidating the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives with an additional five seats.

DeLay, who says the new redistricting is not gerrymandering but a corrective step to reflect Texas’ natural conservative leanings, told the IFCJ audience he would fight the charges.

“I fear no evil, the truth is on my side, and make no mistake, justice will be served,” he said to applause.

Minutes later, he again cast events in biblical terms as he described the fight against terrorism that he said Israel and the United States share, and added that the battle requires “setting aside personal inconvenience and adversity and recovering from our setbacks.”

DeLay opposed the $300 million the Bush administration succeeded in pushing through Congress for Palestinian aid this year, and he was behind the rigorous oversight that is slowing its disbursement.

“He wasn’t simply a guy who would vote for aid or a pro-Israel resolution,”said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which took the lead in trying to rally opposition in the United States to Israel’s evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza this summer.

“He cared about Israel in every fiber of his being,” Klein said. “He was a very strong supporter of the belief that God gave this land to the Jews and this was the Jews’ land. He was one of the few congressmen to be concerned about giving Gaza away.”

Across the ideological divide, Americans for Peace Now said pretty much the same thing — but cast it in different terms.

“A hammer has been removed from the toolbox of those who are trying to pound a nail in the peace process,” said Lewis Roth, APN’s assistant executive director. Roth’s quote played on DeLay’s nickname, “the Hammer,” which stems from his toughness in ramming through legislation.

“He has been a very negative behind-the-scenes influence in terms of trying to get legislation and appropriations approved that would advance the peace process,” Roth said.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the majority whip who is replacing DeLay for now, is no slouch when it comes to Israel. Pro-Israel groups note that since 1999 Blunt has led four trips to Israel for GOP legislators. The visits were sponsored by the American Israel Educational Foundation, an arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

But Blunt believes in following the Israeli government’s lead when it comes to Israel policy, and has little interest in the pro-settler opposition. He would not meet last year with settler leaders who came to Washington to lobby against the Gaza pullout.

“I’m recognized as a leader of a group in the Congress that supports Israel,” Blunt told JTA at the time. “I believe the Congress will be overwhelmingly supportive of the Israeli government’s efforts to find a permanent and peaceful solution” to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Blunt’s support for the Israeli government gladdened groups that have backed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s peace moves, APN’s Roth said.

“We look forward to working with more moderate leadership in achieving President Bush’s goal of having a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in security,” he said.

On Middle East issues, Democrats appreciate Blunt because he leaves behind the Congress’ current acrimony when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, working closely with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

In an extraordinary sign of their cooperation on the issue, the two men led a bipartisan tour of Israel last December.

“The ascension of Rep. Blunt to this leadership post can only improve the prospects of sensible, pro-peace congressional action,” a senior Democratic congressional aide said. “Mr. DeLay has consistently supported the most hard-line Israeli policies and has demonstrated no regard at all for the Palestinian people.”

DeLay is keeping his seat in Congress, and says he expects to return to his leadership post by December.

Don’t count him out, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.

“He’s only been indicted, not convicted,” Hoenlein said. “He’ll still be a member of Congress, and it’s his nature that he will continue to participate actively and vigorously for Israel.”

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