Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

New Head of House Panel Says She’ll Go to Mat on Israel Issues

February 26, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When Rep. Benjamin Gilman announced he was retiring from Congress last summer, many on Capitol Hill speculated that the House of Representative’s Middle East panel would go with him.

After all, the subcommittee was created in 2001 to give Gilman a forum for his Middle East advocacy when tenure rules forced the New York Republican to turn over the gavel of the House International Relations Committee.

“I feel great solidarity with the Israeli people,” Ros-Lehtinen told JTA last week, after leading a congressional delegation to Israel. “I treasure heading this subcommittee and will take it on with a great deal of seriousness.”

Officially entitled the House International Relations Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, in just two years the Mideast panel has become one of the largest forums for lawmakers to express their pro-Israel leanings.

Contrary to most House subcommittees, attendance at hearings by members of the Mideast subcommittee was impressive, with many touting their ties to Israel.

That’s the reason the subcommittee was maintained, one Democratic congressional staffer said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the Republicans are working very hard on outreach to the Jewish community,” he said. “And this is a forum to highlight a principle objective of the Republican Party to the Jewish community.”

“The continuation of the subcommittee had the potential to be very good or very bad,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “There was no way to predict until the final decisions were made.”

Ros-Lehtinen is an interesting choice to lead the panel. A Cuban refugee in a Miami district with a large Jewish population, she is considered a good soldier in the Republican conference and a lawmaker with strong ties to AIPAC.

She says she lobbied hard to keep the subcommittee and to chair it, because there are so many issues in the region that need to be tackled.

Ros-Lehtinen’s priorities coincide largely with those of the American Jewish community — including securing additional foreign aid and loan guarantees for Israel; punishing the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat; and investigating U.S. funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees.

Ros-Lehtinen says she’s willing to go to the mat on these issues, even when it means taking a stand against the White House.

Like its predecessors, the Bush administration has invoked national security waivers to avoid implementing many Congressional initiatives on the Middle East, claiming that implementing the laws could jeopardize the U.S. role as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“I continue to support these things in spite of resistance from the Bush administration,” she said. “We hope to pass bills that won’t just make a statement, but get necessary funds for Israel.”

But Ros-Lehtinen has praise for the White House as well.

She praised the indictments last week of eight men in Florida who allegedly helped raise money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

“I don’t think they’ve been dragging their feet,” she said of the Bush administration and its efforts in the war on terrorism. “I think they’ve been doing the best, in spite of some criticism that they are doing racial profiling, etc.”

She said Israeli officials made clear their support for U.S. military action against Iraq, and their desire to stay out of the conflict unless Saddam Hussein launches an attack on Israel that causes mass casualties.

However, many Israelis expressed uncertainty about the Bush administration’s plans for the future of Iraq and how the United States will act toward other volatile countries in the Middle East, such as Iran and Syria.

“They’re hopeful that a strong, defensive campaign by the United States will send a message to the hostile leaders that we are willing to take action against them,” she said.

If the Iraq war goes well, Ros-Lehtinen’s main job could be building support for the $4 billion in military aid and $8 billion in loan guarantees Israel is seeking from the United States after the war.

“There will be broad support for loan packages and military aid,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen replaces a lawmaker whose ties to the Jewish community often seemed stronger than his ties to his own party.

“She doesn’t have the institutional ties with the Jewish community that Gilman had,” the Democratic official said. “But Mr. Gilman did not have a lot of horse power in the Republican conference.”

In fact, Gilman retired last year before New York redistricting left him without a seat, and he briefly floated the notion of switching parties to run against a Republic incumbent in his new district.

While Ros-Lehtinen is not Jewish, she is likely to do much of the work on issues of concern to the pro-Israel lobby. That is not a new task for her, however.

Since coming to Congress in 1989, she has done much to further the Jewish community’s interests in Florida and across the country.

“Ros-Lehtinen’s record has been among the strongest in the Congress,” Needler said. “She has a time-tested commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and has demonstrated she is a true leader when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

Recommended from JTA