Jewish Journal

Names to Watch on Way Up, Down in ‘06

by James D. Besser

Posted on Dec. 29, 2005 at 7:00 pm

Here are a handful of people to watch in the coming 12 months -- some on the way up; some on the way down.

Jack Abramoff: The once-high-flying Republican lobbyist, Jewish benefactor and GOP best buddy has become the most radioactive man in Washington, thanks to controversial deals with Native American gaming interests and his cozy links with top legislators, especially the golf aficionados.

Now that he may be about to cut a deal with prosecutors, the scandal could affect some of the biggest names in politics, starting with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). And that could have an impact on the 2006 midterm congressional elections.

Ariel Sharon: The prime minister's daring political gamble in leaving Likud and creating the centrist Kadima Party, his rumored plans for new West Bank withdrawals and his uncertain health make him the most intriguing figure in the Middle East. Many American Jewish right-wingers revile the man they once idolized, but centrist Jews here, once distrustful, are poised to support his next peace moves.

But what, exactly, will they be? And how will a fragmented Palestinian leadership react to new unilateral Israeli peace initiatives?

Sharon's fortunes are inextricably linked to those of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who may soon find out if his decision to co-opt rather than confront Hamas will pay off -- or sink his already leaking ship of state.

Benjamin Netanyahu: The former prime minister and finance minister, now leading a Sharon-less Likud Party, is at another juncture in his mercurial career. A move to the right could marginalize his party still further, but Bibi could get a boost from any resumption of widespread terrorism against Israel. Another unknown for both Netanyahu and Sharon: whether Amir Peretz, the new Labor Party leader, will be able to help right that rudderless ship.

Condoleezza Rice: Will the secretary of state, whose recent shuttle diplomacy won an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on border crossings, now take a more active role in jump starting the stalled "road map" for Palestinian statehood? And how will her possible presidential aspirations affect her diplomacy in the region? Already, "Rice '08" bumper stickers have appeared on Washington highways.

Howard Kohr: Despite this year's indictment of two former top American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) officials, AIPAC had a banner 2005.

But Kohr, the group's executive director, will face huge new challenges as the case against Steve Rosen, former policy director, and Keith Weissman, an Iran analyst, goes to court. If it turns out badly for the defendants, there will be questions about how their improper activity could have taken place on Kohr's watch. If they are acquitted, he will come under criticism from their supporters for firing them.

Most analysts say that so far, Kohr has kept AIPAC focused on its core mission, despite all the controversy -- and even exploited the scandal to boost fundraising. But that task could get significantly harder in 2006.

Abe Foxman: Are Jewish relations with the Christian right at a turning point? The Anti-Defamation League director thinks so. His November blast against groups he says use public policy to "Christianize" the nation set off aftershocks that will reverberate into 2006.

Will a still-liberal Jewish community follow the outspoken Foxman, and will he get help from those Jewish leaders who agree with him on the substance of his charges but worry about alienating evangelicals who support Israel and who wield enormous power in Congress and the White House?

Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA): Will they continue to pursue divestment against Israel while making nice with Hezbollah? That threatens a major rupture with a Jewish community that has traditionally worked closely with the Presbyterians on major domestic issues. Other mainline churches have backed off divestment. If the Presbyterians don't, they will render themselves irrelevant in the quest for Mideast peace.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.): Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, has enjoyed a spectacular rise up the GOP leadership ladder, now serving as chief deputy whip in only his third term.

Cantor could help the party recover from a scandal-filled year in advance of the 2006 midterm elections and in the process boost his own hopes for becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House. But he could be tainted by his reputation as a DeLay loyalist, if the former majority leader goes down in flames.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.): Is the nation ready for a Jewish presidential candidate from the Dairy State? Feingold -- who was in the news in December for his staunch opposition to the Patriot Act and his angry response to new revelations of government spying -- thinks it is.

The quirky Feingold is a longshot, but some analysts say that if public anger about the Iraq War continues to mount and revelations about inappropriate government activity continue to wash across front pages, he could be in a position to challenge the putative front-runner for the Democratic nomination: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), now recast as a centrist who refuses to criticize the administration's Iraq policies.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): The maverick Arizona Republican forced the administration to back down on legislation banning the torture of U.S. detainees. Political pros say McCain's reputation for integrity and his independence could make him an attractive choice for the growing number of Jewish independents, despite his arch conservatism on domestic issues. And he could be the antidote for a party that goes into the 2006 congressional midterms wracked by scandals.

Look for McCain to dramatically increase his outreach to the Jewish community in 2006 as he cranks up his campaign machine.


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