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Jewish Journal

The DeLay Factor and the Jews

by James D. Besser

September 25, 2003 | 8:00 pm

The recent clamor over Howard Dean's demand for U.S. "evenhandedness" in the Middle East was sweet music to the ears of Jewish Republicans, who hope 2004 will be a watershed in their long but frustrating effort to rally Jewish voters to their cause.

But the Republicans could overplay their hand, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who sometimes makes Ariel Sharon sound like a peacenik, is just the man to do it.

The Texas congressman, who has emerged as a powerful friend of Israeli nationalists and right-wingers, was on the attack last week, lashing out at Dean, the surprise frontrunner in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

But DeLay's pro-Israel ardor, while galvanizing to a small Jewish minority and useful to mainstream leaders, could neutralize the positive political impact of President George W. Bush -- whose support for both Israel and an active peace process may play well among Jewish swing voters.

During his 18 years in Congress, DeLay, a former Houston exterminator, has been known mostly for his intense partisanship, his hard-right views on domestic subjects and his close relationship with groups like the Christian Coalition.

For much of that time he was considered cool to Israel -- hostile to foreign aid, and not particularly sympathetic to the pro-Israel cause on Capitol Hill.

That began to change in the mid-1990s as pro-Israel conservatives courted the increasingly powerful DeLay, and as a key segment of his core constituency -- conservative Evangelical Christians -- began to put their version of "Christian Zionism" at the top of their list of priorities.

Some analysts say that agenda is based heavily on Christian biblical prophecies, which require constant warfare in the Middle East and a terrible fate for those Jews who do not jump aboard the millennial bandwagon.

Whatever their motives, their support has been welcomed by pro-Israel groups, which face mounting hostility from liberal "mainline" Protestant denominations. It was especially welcomed by the Jewish right, which for the first time had a politically powerful champion in Washington.

DeLay was reborn into the pro-Israel faith with a vengeance.

In 2000, he was one of only three lawmakers voting against a congressional resolution praising Israel for its withdrawal from Lebanon, claiming that Israel was making a big mistake giving back any land.

In 2002, DeLay headed a congressional effort to deflect pressure on Israel from the leader of his party, President Bush.

This year, he delighted hard-liners when he told the pro-Israel lobby that Israel has a perfect right to keep Gaza and the West Bank.

"I've toured Judea and Samaria," he said, "and stood on the Golan Heights," he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "I didn't see occupied territory. I saw Israel."

He repeated that claim last week to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Jewish right-wingers here applaud such talk; mainstream Jewish leaders, while not entirely comfortable with it, are grateful for his support, and some swallow their discomfort over his hard-line views.

But if DeLay is the spearhead of a new GOP effort to woo Jewish voters, the party may be in trouble. Poll after poll shows that American Jews remain committed to the fundamentals of land-for-peace negotiations.

Despite the way Jews from across the spectrum have rallied behind a terror-beset Israel, there is very little support here for the settlers who are determined to hold onto their West Bank and Gaza outposts, or the neo-Kahanists who dream of "transferring" Palestinians somewhere else.

American Jewish leaders have expressed great skepticism about the Bush administration's "road map" for Palestinian statehood, but polls indicate most American Jews support its principles.

DeLay may score points with some top Jewish leaders, who are interested mostly in his ability to serve as a counterweight to administration pressure on Israel, and with single-issue pro-Israel groups, which easily overlook a domestic record that makes him the prince of the Christian right.

But the majority of Jews are centrists whose votes are shaped by a wide array of issues, not just Israel. On both the foreign and domestic fronts, Jewish voters, while not as liberal as they once were, are poles apart from DeLay and his ultra-conservative colleagues.

On the Middle East, President Bush has struck a balance that may appeal to that Jewish mainstream: strong, unequivocal support for Israel, but also for a genuine peace process that everybody knows can only end with the creation of a real Palestinian state.

That combination could be especially attractive next November if the Democrats nominate a challenger beholden to the party's left flank, where Israel isn't exactly the most popular cause in town.

DeLay represents a support for Israel's most extreme factions and a harsh vision for the future of the region that is repellent to many of the Jews the Republicans hope to attract.

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