Pro-Israel Lobby Takes a Right Turn

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Who's the current darling of the pro-Israel lobby? Who fired up more than 2,000 delegates attending the convention of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in Washington on Tuesday morning? Who had them standing on their feet cheering after practically every sentence he uttered? Not a liberal Democrat, as you might expect. It was a conservative Republican from Sugar Land, Texas, a born-again Christian whose nickname is the "Hammer."

Tom DeLay, the take-no-prisoners House Republican Whip, has already lapped Democrats in the race to prove who is Israel's strongest ally on Capitol Hill. On April 3, long before Israel's diehard supporters in the Democratic Party had begun to wake up, DeLay visited Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri — site of Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain " speech 56 years earlier — to give an impassioned defense of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's military offensive against the Palestinians. Yasir Arafat is "completely untrustworthy," DeLay thundered. Instead of trying to be a neutral broker in the deadly conflict, George Bush should "support Israel as they dismantle the Palestinian leadership that foments violence and fosters hate." DeLay sent White House aides a copy of the Missouri speech before he delivered it. They gulped when they read it, but were grateful the House Whip didn't blast the administration for what its critics consider an erratic Middle East diplomacy.

DeLay gives few foreign policy speeches and when he does they're usually on issues the Right holds dear, like sanctioning China for human rights abuses or maintaining the embargo on Cuba. DeLay aides say their boss worried that the White House was getting too much pressure from Israel's enemies in the Arab world, many of whom were demanding that Sharon lift his military siege of the occupied territories. "DeLay wanted to draw a line in the sand" and stake out the position of Republican conservatives in the crisis, said one of his staffers. "The White House needed to hear from the pro-Israel side."

There were other political calculations as well. DeLay knew he'd be trumping the Democrats with one of their traditional constituencies. He also has locked in the votes to succeed Congressman Dick Armey as majority leader when Armey retires at the end of this term. But DeLay has been looking for foreign policy issues that show he can enunciate positions for the Republican Party as the future House majority leader. DeLay met with Bush after the Missouri speech. Bush told him he understood that DeLay was voicing Republican frustration with the administration's Middle East policy and appreciated that his criticism hadn't taken a harsher tone.

This Tuesday morning, however, DeLay dialed up the hot rhetoric once more. Arafat, he told the AIPAC convention, has spent his life "fomenting, orchestrating and directing the slaughter of innocent people." The AIPAC delegates stood and cheered. "Let me make something clear to those who urge the United States to 'pressure' Israel," DeLay continued. "America doesn't run out on her friends...We cannot act as a mere broker. Israel is resisting a campaign of death."

DeLay is following up the strong words by pushing for more U.S. dollars for Israel. He'll likely get the House to pass a resolution next week "expressing solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism" and calling for "additional United State assistance to help Israel defend itself." DeLay has in mind an extra $200 million for Israel, a figure Bush's Office of Management and Budget has already rejected as too high. AIPAC officials, however, are delighted with Delay's charging into the debate. They know that once the Hammer locks onto an issue, he's relentless until it's approved — and funded — by Congress.