WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (JTA) – The only Arab American in the Senate for the last six years, and a lawmaker with a mixed record on Israel issues, will join President-elect Bush’s Cabinet as secretary of energy.
In November, Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) lost a tight race to Rep. Deborah Stabenow for a second term. The former senator was praised by several pro-Israel activists, who noted his strong support for immigration reform and nuclear non-proliferation.
“We had a good working relationship with him,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He had a close relationship with the Jewish community in Michigan, and his voting record was good on Israel-related issues.”
In accepting the Cabinet post Tuesday, Abraham, 48, cited his Lebanese heritage. He is an Eastern Orthodox Christian.
“I just want to say that I think it is a testament to the special place that America is that the grandson of four Lebanese immigrants can have the opportunity to serve in the Cabinet of the president of the United States,” he said. “I’m very proud to have been given this opportunity.”
In the Senate, Abraham co-sponsored legislation to crack down on oil money headed toward Iran and Libya. He also opposed U.S. recognition of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence.
Yet Abraham’s record at times has not always pleased Jewish groups. He was one of only two senators not to sign a letter to President Clinton this fall condemning Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for the latest violence in the Middle East.
Abraham’s appointment to the energy post surprised many, who considered him better suited for the Department of Transportation because of his work on the Senate’s transportation committee and because of Michigan’s economic base.
In Michigan, the Arab community is three times the size of the Jewish community. Still, Abraham maintained good relations with the Jewish community, according to David Gad-Harf, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
The two men worked together on immigration reform, part of Abraham’s job as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.
“He took the lead in trying to work for more fair immigration policies and to raise the limits on the number of legal immigrants,” Gad-Harf said.
Abraham also made sure that he and his staff were available to the local Jewish community.
“You would think that on Middle East issues, there would be problems,” Gad-Harf said. “But we were able to work with him on issues that were supportive of the peace process.”
In any case, Gad-Harf noted, as head of the Department of Energy Abraham will not venture deeply into the Middle East peace process. However, he will oversee the influx of oil to the United States from the strategic Persian Gulf region.