DeLay’s Dilemma

Pitched partisan battles are what’s in store for the upcoming 108th Congress. And for an anxious Jewish community, the shift to GOP control on Capitol Hill could contribute to something else: a renewal of the old fight between battle between single-interest pro-Israel activists and those who advocate a broader approach to political activism.

In theory, the community is served by a blend of the two. In reality, the intense partisanship of the new Congress and the parallel shift of Israel to the right will put the two approaches into direct conflict.

The new GOP congressional leadership is, by and large, more hawkishly pro-Israel than any of its predecessors, but also less in sync with a broad range of Jewish domestic concerns.

The fact that pro-Israel forces here will be defending a government in Jerusalem that is likely to move even further to the right will add to the communal tensions over the proper balance in Jewish activism.

Underlying the revival of the old debate is one undeniable fact: Israel is facing grave new challenges and an increasingly hostile international environment. But there is one place where support for Israel has become virtually wall to wall: the U.S. Congress.

Much of that has to do with several decades of focused, assertive lobbying by groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Also, pro-Israel political action committees and money bundlers have gotten the attention of politicians the old-fashioned way: through their campaign coffers.

The pro-Israel lobby has done a particularly good job of expanding support among conservative Republicans, once a group that had little sympathy for the Jewish State. In fact, many of Israel’s most ardent admirers today come from the right side of the political spectrum, in part because the single-issue activists have been happy to ignore the domestic positions of many of their newfound friends. That has produced impressive results, but it also causes a kind of political schizophrenia for the Jewish community.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the incoming House Majority Leader, has become a key backer of Israel. More to the point, he is a strong defender of the hard-line positions of Likud. But on domestic matters, DeLay is one of the most conservative members of the House. It was DeLay who blamed the Columbine school shootings on the teaching of evolution and the lack of school prayer, not the ready availability of guns. And it was DeLay who told a recent Christian pro-Israel rally that, “This is the week you put people in office who stand for everything we believe in and stand unashamedly with Jesus Christ.”

He isn’t alone. When former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to town, he is routinely hosted by conservative Republicans. Bibi may have a hard time winning the upcoming Likud primary, but he would win hands down if the vote was taken in the GOP caucus on Capitol Hill.

That support may be particularly important if the Israeli government takes another turn to the right following the January 28 elections. The Bush administration may react negatively, but Israel will have a cushion of insulation in Congress, where conservative lawmakers will be the Israeli hard-liners’ defensive front line.

But most American Jews, while supporting Israel, take a broader view of politics. For many, the single-interest focus of many pro-Israel groups means consorting with the enemy.

The single-issue, pro-Israel folks say that’s irrelevant; what counts is American Jewish support at a time when Israel is painfully short of friends.

The multi-issue supporters say the price is too high. The focus on a single overarching issue distorts the Jewish community’s broad priorities, they insist; it creates a wrong impression that politicians can win Jewish votes and money by just mouthing the right pro-Israel slogans even if they oppose almost every Jewish domestic priority.

The single-issue advocates say that conservatism is the wave of the future, and that pro-Israel forces had better ally themselves with that political segment or get left behind.

The multi-issue advocates worry that the narrower approach to politics boosts lawmakers who support Israel for the wrong reasons, such as Christian biblical prophecy. And they worry about the emerging alliance between Christian conservatives and their congressional backers and the political right in Israel.

When he spoke at the AIPAC conference this spring, DeLay startled delegates when he said, “I’ve been to Masada, I’ve toured Judea and Samaria, I’ve walked the streets of Jerusalem and I’ve stood on the Golan Heights. And when I looked out, I didn’t see occupied territory. I saw Israel.”

That was music to the ears of pro-Israel hard-liners, but it was jarring noise to the likely majority of Jews who still believe territorial compromise is Israel’s only hope for long-term survival.

Some multi-issue advocates worry: is the pro-Israel movement becoming more and more estranged from the Jewish mainstream — which generally supports centrist Israeli policies — because its new best friends are so cozy with Israeli right-wingers?

As the intifada drags on, American Jews seem unified in support of Israel. But just beneath the surface, there are deep fault lines that could start to touch off tremblers as the next Congress takes over.