Obey, tough congressional appropriator, to retire

WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. Rep. David Obey, the chief congressional appropriator who at times has been unstinting in his criticism of AIPAC and Israel, is retiring.

Obey (D-Wis.), who faces a tough re-election campaign in an anti-incumbent year, said Wednesday that he will not run in November.

Obey, 71, is known as being blunt and even ferocious at times; his screaming matches are legendary within Congress’ halls.

First elected in 1968, he has served on the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee for decades and as its chairman since 2007.

He took on Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 1991-92, when AIPAC sought to overcome through Congress President George H.W. Bush’s threat to withdraw loan guarantees unless Israel stopped settlement building. Israel was seeking $10 billion in loan guarantees to help settle the massive post-Cold War influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Obey warned AIPAC that even if it got the votes on the House foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, which he chaired at the time, he would not allow a vote to override Bush to go through.

In his 2007 autobiography "Raising Hell for Justice," Obey recalled addressing a 1992 meeting in the Capitol that had been convened by then-Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval to consider ways to resist Bush’s threat.

Obey stood on the sidelines before finally speaking up.

"Mr. Ambassador, I want to help Israel settle Soviet Jewish refugees, everybody in this room probably does, but not at the expense of gutting the administration’s ability to be seen as honest brokers in the peace process in the Middle East," he said.

"I will not be party to day-in, day-out end runs around the president on this issue. He is not of my party, but he is our president. He is defending longstanding U.S. policy and I will not cooperate in any attempt to undermine that policy."

The confrontation meant that Obey would never again enjoy an intimate relationship with the pro-Israel community.

In 2004, Obey told the Washington Post that AIPAC "pushed the Likud Party line and in the process has crowded out other voices in the Jewish community."

Obey was not reflexively a critic of pro-Israel ideas. Instead, his postures grew out of staunchly liberal notions of good governance.

In recent years, for instance, he aligned himself with pro-Israel right-wingers in favoring reducing military assistance to Egypt and using the funds instead to increase assistance to pro-democracy groups in that country.

"When it came to foreign affairs, Chairman Obey promoted a principled foreign policy rooted in the values of the Midwest," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement regretting Obey’s departure.

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