By Edward Epstein
San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON (SFC) – Speaker Nancy Pelosi is widely recognized as a strong, second-generation supporter of Israel, but the scattered boos she heard during an appearance before the Israel lobby’s most committed activists highlighted their conflicting emotions over the war in Iraq.
The cool response from the nonpartisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which gathered nearly 6,000-strong Tuesday in Washington for its annual policy conference, came after she characterized as a failure a war many of them support.
Just minutes before, the House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, had received a standing ovation from the same crowd when he defended the war as a key part of the global war on terrorism vital to the survival of the United States and Israel.
American Jews traditionally vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers, but on Iraq, some think withdrawal, championed by the Democratic Congress, would spread chaos in the Middle East and empower Israel’s mortal enemies.
Pelosi, who aides said was prepared for the mixed reception to her war comments, confined Iraq to a few paragraphs at the end of her 25-minute speech. The House speaker, just like the other politicians who annually address the group’s conference, lauded Israel, called the U.S.-Israel partnership unshakable, attacked the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon and blasted the radical Hamas organization’s role in the Palestinian government.
And all the politicians pledged support for continued aid to Israel. President Bush has proposed $2.4 billion in aid to Israel in his budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Pelosi first stressed the U.S.-Israel partnership. "When Israel is threatened, America’s interests in the region are threatened. America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable,” she said to an ovation.
But when she talked about Iraq, the reaction was different. "Any U.S. military engagement must be judged on three counts — whether it makes our country safer, our military stronger, or the region more stable. The war in Iraq fails on all three scores,” she said to some boos amid some applause.
Boehner, on the other hand, was cheered when he said, "Who does not believe that failure in Iraq is not a direct threat to the state of Israel? The consequences of failure in Iraq are so ominous for the United States and Israel you can’t even begin to think about it.”
Among the speakers at the three-day event was Vice President Dick Cheney, who on Monday used his appearance to attack Pelosi’s proposed Iraq spending legislation, which seeks a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq by late 2008. Others who appeared at the group’s meeting were the Senate’s two top leaders, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
In all, more than half of both the House and Senate membership made it to the conference this year, a sign of the Israel lobby’s clout and the power of its message.
The Jewish community’s party preference is largely reflected in the party membership of Jewish members of Congress. The House has 29 Jewish Democrats and one Republican. In the Senate, two of 13 Jews are Republicans.
The 100,000-member organization, which bills itself as "consistently ranked as the most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill,” held its Washington conference as House Democrats finished writing their bill providing almost $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — with significant strings attached.
Aides to top House Democrats said the lobbying group helped force the elimination of a provision that would have required President Bush to return to Congress for a separate vote of authorization before launching any military operation against Iran.
Committee officials downplayed the group’s role in eliminating the provision. They preferred to highlight their support for legislation offered by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, which seeks to tighten international sanctions against Iran as long as that country tries to develop nuclear weapons.
Opposition to the Iran provision also came from members of the Blue Dog Caucus, moderate to conservative Democrats whose votes will be needed to pass the spending bill when it reaches the House floor next week.
House Republican leaders said they were glad the requirement that Bush get another congressional vote before acting against Iran was eliminated from the bill.
"A substantial number of Democratic members pushed back and caused their leaders to retreat, reflecting their own unease about tying the commander-in-chief’s hands to protect our troops or our allies in the region,” said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., who chairs the House Republican Conference.
The White House has denied it has any plan to attack Iran.
And in his speech to the conference, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr endorsed Lantos’ legislation and said preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons "will require a much more robust diplomatic, political and economic sanctions regime.”
Pelosi also told the audience about how as a child she had first heard of Israel shortly after it was created, when Jewish friends of her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the Baltimore mayor and a Democratic House member, came home after visiting the new Jewish state and told stories of how orange groves were blossoming in the desert.
Her father, a strong backer of President Franklin Roosevelt, was a supporter of the Bergson Group during World War II. The group lobbied Roosevelt and Congress to rescue Jews from the Nazis and pressed for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
In recognition of D’Alesandro’s efforts, a soccer stadium in Haifa, Israel, is named for him.
He died not long after Pelosi took her House seat in 1987.
(The San Francisco Chronicle, http://sfgate.com, March 14, 2007)