When the news broke last week that former President Jimmy Carter is set to release a book highly critical of Israel, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi quickly issued a statement denouncing the views of her fellow Democrat.
“With all due respect,” Pelosi declared in a written statement, “he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel.”
Pelosi, the San Francisco lawmaker who is poised to become speaker of the House of Representatives if the Democrats win control of Congress, spoke out after reading excerpts from an advanced draft of the book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”
Officials at Jewish organizations in Washington said this week that the minority leader’s attack on Carter is in line with what they describe as a straight-A record on Israel. Still, Pelosi has struggled to convince many activists in the pro-Israel community that she is not the “San Francisco liberal” her GOP critics portray her to be. And Republicans have been arguing that their best, perhaps only, hope of hanging on to the House is to convince voters that Pelosi would be a weak wartime leader.
Pelosi’s critics “think being a liberal from San Francisco is a code name for wearing Birkenstock sandals, tie-dye shirts, being pro-abortion and anti-Israel,” one of Pelosi’s supporters in the Jewish community said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The truth, according to Pelosi’s backers, is quite different. On matters concerning the Jewish state she is as mainstream as they get, sticking to a pro-Israeli line ever since she entered Congress. (As for the tie-dyes and Birkenstocks, Pelosi is one of the best-dressed politicians, known for her designer suits and matching shoes.)
To demonstrate the extent of Pelosi’s support for Israel and for the Jewish community, Jewish activists in the Bay area tell the story of a luncheon given several years ago by pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at which Pelosi was one of the speakers. Suddenly an alarm went off in the building and the participants began rushing to the doors. All but one — Pelosi, who stood up and recited Israel’s national anthem. The impression that this event left on the Jewish activists who were gathered in the room is now one of Pelosi’s main assets as she tries to improve her image in pro-Israel circles.
Pelosi, who grew up in Baltimore and first heard about Israel from Zionist neighbors, is said to have many friends in the San Francisco Jewish community. Sam Lauter, a political consultant from the city, used to have the Pelosi family over for the Passover Seder every year, until they moved to Washington. “She is a personal friend of ours and a passionate friend of the Jewish community,” Lauter told the Forward.
Pelosi and her husband, Paul, are Roman Catholic. According to acquaintances, Pelosi, who attended a Catholic girls school in Washington, goes to church regularly.
She visited Israel in the early 1990s on a trip sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, and she has maintained strong ties with the pro-Israel community ever since.
Aipac includes a laudatory quote from Pelosi on its Web site. “Leader Pelosi has a perfect record of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship and has demonstrated leadership on a host of our issues,” spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata said. “She has strong ties with the pro-Israel community… locally in her district, in her state, and nationwide.”
Another veteran official at a major Jewish group told the Forward that “as far as it concerns Pelosi, there is no question about her commitment to Israel and nothing about that will change.”
Regarding Iraq, Pelosi has established herself as a vocal critic of the war and has rejected the Republican claim that it has benefited Israel. Pelosi has argued that the Iraq War — which was endorsed by two of the Jewish community’s main umbrella groups — destabilized the region and made things more dangerous for Israel.
Many pro-Israel observers surveyed by the Forward predicted that if Pelosi does become speaker, the House would remain staunchly pro-Israel given the bipartisan support enjoyed by Jerusalem. Close advisers to the minority leader could not point to specific ways that her approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would differ from Bush’s. But other congressional sources believe that Pelosi has a more dovish disposition than the White House and that she could use the position of speaker to push Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to play a more proactive role in kick-starting the peace process.
Shlomo Aronson, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, believes that the Democrats controlling of the House may leave Congress more open to negotiations with Damascus and might push the administration to allow Israel to move forward on the Syrian track. “The mere fact that the Democrats might talk about disconnecting Syria from its ties to the axis of evil may lead to negotiations which will benefit Israel greatly,” said Aronson, who is now a visiting professor at the University of Arizona.
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matthew Brooks, predicted that as a lawmaker representing one of the country’s most pro-Palestinian districts, Pelosi would be under constant pressure to back away from her earlier support for Israel. “She will constantly have to look over her left shoulder,” Brooks said.
Brooks criticized Pelosi’s failure to co-sponsor a pro-Israel resolution during last summer’s war in Lebanon.
A day after the war broke out, Pelosi agreed to co-sponsor a nonbinding resolution expressing support for Israel in a time of war, along with House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. The resolution went to the House International Relations Committee, and, after a week of back-and-forth negotiations, the Republican led-committee refused to add language Pelosi wanted that called for both sides to refrain from harming civilians. After her suggestions were turned down, Pelosi refused to be a co-sponsor; however, she did support the resolution and pushed her fellow Democrats in the House to do the same.
In a statement that her office put out, Pelosi said that “this resolution reaffirms our unwavering support and commitment to Israel and condemns the attacks by Hezbollah.”
Sources close to the minority leader said she was made “furious” by claims that she was not being supportive of Israel at a time of war. A senior activist in the Jewish community, who asked not to be identified, said that Pelosi was the victim of an “attempt to turn Israel into a partisan issue.”
But Brooks said the problem was that Pelosi blinked in a crucial moment for Israel. “She literally stripped her name off a resolution supporting Israel because she thought it was not evenhanded enough and too pro-Israeli,” Brooks said.
After the war in Lebanon ended, Pelosi gathered a group of local Jewish communal leaders from her home district to discuss its outcome.
“She was eloquent in her support for a strong Israel,” said San Francisco JCRC executive director Dough Kahn, who attended the meeting. “She feels it in her bones.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.