Will Democrats Change U.S. Policy on Israel?

The U.S. Congress has been an especially staunch ally of Israel in past years. Now that the Democrats have swept the House and Senate, will U.S. policy on Israel change at all?

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From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY.

Israel receives more U.S. foreign aid than any other country except Iraq. For decades, U.S. policy towards Israel has been one of firm support. But with Congress in Democratic hands next year, NPR's Mike Pesca examines whether that policy will change.

MIKE PESCA: What nervousness there is about the prospect of a Democratic Congress being less attentive to Israeli interests doesn't stem from everything that Democrats have said or done, says Zalman Shoval. Israel's former ambassador to the U.S. says his countrymen just noticed stakes are so high.

Mr. ZALMAN SHOVAL (Former Israeli Ambassador to U.S.): Israelis are worried because we live in a worrisome neighborhood.

PESCA: But Shoval, who is appointed for two different stints as ambassador by Likud Party prime ministers, says the man on the street, the Jerusalem or Tel Aviv street, is unfazed by U.S. midterms.

Mr. SHOVAL: I don't think that they go into the intricacies of American political opinions. And the Bush administration, whatever the views in the United States are, is considered, and rightly so, as being very friendly towards Israel. But we were comfortable with the Clinton administration, as well.

PESCA: And Shoval says, on back through Johnson, Kennedy, etc. As far as Israel's backers in America - Norman Orenstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute - says they really have little to worry about.

Mr. NORMAN ORENSTEIN (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): Fundamental reality is that the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress are pro-Israel. The ones who matter in terms of the committees of record, and in particular the House Foreign Affairs Committee with Tom Lantos in charge, are staunch supporters of Israel. We're just not going to see Congress intervene, I think in any fashion, in a way that will be deleterious to the interests of Israel and the United States.

PESCA: Lantos is a Holocaust survivor. But another Democrat, Jane Harman, who is equally as supportive of Israel, was denied the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. That decision flowed from Nancy Pelosi, who will be speaker of the House come 2007. But Norm Orenstein says Pelosi's differences with Harman are unrelated to Israel policy.

Mr. ORENSTEIN: Nancy Pelosi is a very strong (unintelligible) and whatever difficulties are there - and there are difficulties between Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman - have nothing to do with Israel.

PESCA: The other important point to consider, notes Orenstein, is the Congress has far less power to affect foreign policy than does the executive branch. Whatever sense there is that Democrats might be weaker on Israel than Republicans may have been fostered by arguments put forth during the midterm campaign. Matt Dorf is a consultant for the Democratic National Committee, who specializes in Jewish outreach.

Mr. MATT DORF (Consultant, Democratic National Committee): During this last election cycle, there was an orchestrated Republican campaign to turn support for Israel into a wedge issue among Jewish voters.

PESCA: The less partisan way of saying that is that Republican advocates, notably the Republican Jewish Coalition, made the case through ads in Jewish newspapers that Republican policy would be favorable to Israel. While it's true that Israel's backers in the U.S. go far beyond the Jewish community, and while it's also true that many American Jews all but ignore Israel in the voting booth, Dorf is pretty pleased with how the election went. According to National Exit Poll data, in last week's House races 87 percent of Jewish voters backed Democrats.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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