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Growing Tea Party Movement Is Still a Great Unknown on Israel

The Tea Party movement, a loose conglomeration of conservatives angry over government spending, is considered one of the most influential groups on today’s American political scene.

For liberals and conservatives the Tea Party movement is a politically polarizing topic, but for the pro-Israel community it is a great unknown. With Tea Party activists focusing on domestic issues more than on foreign policy, and with views on Israel running the gamut from staunch support for right-wing Israeli positions to calls for a total reversal of American support for the Jewish state, pro-Israel activists are left guessing as to how the new movement could affect their cause.

Political analysts see the Tea Party movement as having the capability to influence at least a dozen close congressional races in the 2010 elections. Increasing political representation of advocates for small government would primarily affect domestic policy, but the Tea Party movement’s new clout could also carry over to issues of foreign aid and overseas intervention.

Joel Pollak, a Jewish Republican pursuing a long-shot congressional bid in Illinois’s 9th District, has received the endorsement of his state’s Tea Party movement groups. As a student at Harvard Law School last year, Pollak garnered national attention after accusing visiting Rep. Barney Frank, the Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, of allowing the subprime collapse to happen on his watch. Pollak told the Forward that supporters of Israel need not fear the emerging Tea Party movement.

“Everyone I’ve met at the Tea Party movement is very pro-Israel,” he said, explaining that tea partiers are concerned that the Obama administration is “moving away from its allies around the world,” and they view Israel as “case in point.”

But Pollak also stressed that while activists he knows care about Israel and believe in being tough with Iran, the Tea Party “is not about foreign policy.”

The movement’s focus on domestic issues and its de-centralized, continuously morphing structure, likened by one Jewish Republican activist to “an amoeba,” provide few clues as to the approach it will take toward issues relating to Israel.

Jewish Democrats have seized on the rising popularity of Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, among tea partiers to warn against the movement.

Paul, a libertarian and isolationist who built up a passionate base of support during his long-shot 2008 presidential run, emerged as the winner of a presidential straw poll held at the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Public Action Conference in February. Paul garnered 31% of the vote, far ahead of runner-up, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who won 22%.

Paul’s views on Israel have been a long-standing source of concern for the Jewish community. Paul is an outspoken opponent of Israeli actions and of American support for the Jewish state. He is also a polarizing figure among conservatives, with views on foreign-policy that are anathema to many on the right. Indeed, the announcement at CPAC that Paul had won the straw poll was greeted by boos.

The president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, David Harris, stressed the danger posed by Paul’s popularity among conservatives in a press release following the CPAC vote.

On the other side of the Jewish political map, Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, agreed that Paul “is definitely a problem” but argued that he is no more than a “total fringe fanatic.”

M.J. Rosenberg, who writes regularly about Israel for the liberal group Media Matters for America, said that conservative support for Paul does not represent a trend that should concern the pro-Israel community. “I don’t think the Tea Party people are pro- or anti-Israel,” Rosenberg said. “They probably reflect the general American view that is supportive of Israel.”

While some see the influence of Paul’s libertarian populism in the Tea Party movement, others point to former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as the unofficial leader of the unofficial movement.

Palin, who was criticized during the 2008 presidential campaign for a lack of knowledge of international affairs, has always made clear her strong support for Israel.

Palin addressed the Tea Party convention in Nashville on February 6 wearing a lapel pin featuring the Israeli and American flags. In a television interview with Barbara Walters in November, she argued against American demands for a West Bank settlement freeze, saying that Jewish communities there need to grow in order to accommodate “more and more Jewish people that will be flocking to Israel.”

For most Tea Party movement activists, the ideological chasm separating Paul and Palin on issues relating to Israel is of little interest. Foreign policy questions are rarely raised by Tea Party activists in articles and events.

But the focus of members of the Tea Party movement on small government and on cutting spending could have an indirect impact on one of the key elements of the American-Israeli relationship: foreign aid.

Israel currently receives roughly $2.7 billion a year in military aid from the United States as part of a 10-year aid agreement. Foreign aid as a broad category is one of the parts of the federal budget that some supporters of the Tea Party movement say needs to be cut.

“Aid to Israel is on autopilot,” said Douglas Bloomfield, a former chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He said that for the past two decades, Republicans have joined Democrats in supporting foreign aid, and tea partiers could at most “ask for an across-the-board cut” in foreign aid that would not be directed specifically at Israel.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, stressed that history has shown that aid to Israel is safe, even if advocates of small government become more prominent in the next Congress. “Foreign aid passed with flying colors even when Republicans were in majority,” he said. “I haven’t seen any xenophobic approach coming from the Tea Party movement in a way that would make me fear they will lead a revolution on the issue of foreign aid.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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