Pro-Israel activists say they are confident their legislative priorities will be able to get through the new Congress, which is now under Republican control. In the final election returns, which came early Wednesday morning, a predominance of pro-Israel lawmakers retained their seats, and several new faces emerged, many of whom pro-Israel officials called promising.
The new Congress will take office at a critical time in U.S.-Israel relations, with Israel entering a heated election campaign, prospects for peace with the Palestinians at a standstill and a U.S.-led war against Iraq looming. The congressional approach to Israel and the Middle East is a significant component in those relations.
While American Jewish leaders were closely watching the poll results, there was not much concern: Officials had said they were comfortable with the candidates from both major parties in most of the congressional races.
"Everyone seems to be very good nowadays," said Morris Amitay, a veteran Jewish activist who is treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.
While the Jewish community is predominantly Democratic, Jewish groups have had much success getting legislation passed in a Republican House. Prior to the election, many said they believed they would have success no matter which party controls the Senate.
Support for Israel "is a bipartisan issue," one American Jewish leader said. "Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel."
Another senior pro-Israel official said his organization had spoken during the campaign season to virtually all the nonincumbent candidates who won Tuesday, and that they expected the 108th Congress to be even more supportive of Israel than the outgoing body.
Many of the candidates that the pro-Israel community targeted for defeat were eliminated in primaries or were not seeking re-election.
Republican Norm Coleman, who narrowly defeated his last-minute Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in Minnesota, was opposed by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations as a possible Bush administration appointee two years ago because he is a "ardent supporter of Israel."
The former Jewish mayor of St. Paul, he received strong support -- financial backing from the Republican Jewish Coalition and its supporters.
"He's a passionate, Jewish representative," Brooks said.
Among other Senate results of note:
- Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Max Cleland, in Georgia. Chambliss had criticized Cleland for being reluctant to speak out against comments made by ousted Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) that were deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Chambliss is considered to have a strong record in the House, stemming from his work as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism.
- Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will fill the seat of Sen. Strom Thurmond, the retiring senior senator from South Carolina, having defeated his Democratic challenger, Alex Sanders. Graham spoke last month at the Christian Coalition's rally for Israel in Washington, and is believed to be a strong supporter of the Jewish state.
The 108th Congress will get down to work in early January as both Israel and the Palestinians prepare for elections of their own, and the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq is still an unknown. Against this backdrop, pro-Israel advocates say their agenda for the next two years will focus on legislation that did not get passed this year. Those measures include:
- An additional $200 million in aid to Israel is expected to be tackled by the lame-duck Congress later this month. That will be wrapped into the foreign aid bill, which includes $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel.
- The Palestinian reform bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials, restrict travel of Palestinian officials and freeze the American assets of Palestinian leaders.
- The Syria Accountability Act would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria, and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.
Jewish officials say a Republican majority in Congress could move the flow of legislation faster than in a divided body where partisan issues are paramount.
However, the Republican-led House of Representatives still has had to battle with the White House on several bills related to the Middle East, with the Bush administration complaining that the bills tie its hands and make it harder to implement foreign policy. But House Republicans have been able to prevail, pushing through a pro-Israel resolution last spring that called on the United States to provide additional aid to Israel and condemning "the ongoing support of terror" by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders.
Other variables, such as the changing makeup of the Israeli government after the Labor Party's departure last week and upcoming Israeli elections, could affect congressional action on the Middle East.
U.S. action against Iraq could change things as well. If the United States attacks Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, lawmakers are expected to rally around the flag in support of the president. This could push other Middle East issues off the agenda and make it difficult for Jewish groups to pursue legislation. However, Congress would be likely to offer strong support for Israel's right to defend itself if attacked by Iraq in the course of a U.S.-led war.
Congressional officials say the Middle East portfolio is expected to come under the auspices of the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). If the Middle East subcommittee remains separate, possible Republican chairpersons include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a strong Israel backer, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a lawmaker who has frequently voted against pro-Israel resolutions and foreign aid.