With Murtha gone, what are ramifications for Israel?
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With Murtha gone, what are ramifications for Israel?

Some Jewish communal officials and observers are wondering what the ramifications of the recent death of Rep. John Murtha could be for the pro-Israel community.

Murtha, a stalwart supporter of Israel who was not Jewish himself, presided over the powerful House Appropriations defense subcommittee, which oversees and allocates every federal dollar spent on America’s military preparedness, including hundreds of millions spent on joint missile defense projects with Israel.

The next subcommittee chair has yet to be announced, and publicly, Jewish insiders expressed optimism about Israel’s financial prospects in the future. Others who offered to speak on background, however, described a delicate dance with lawmakers when it comes to ensuring that joint U.S.-Israel projects are a chief priority.

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The death of Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, above, has left a gap in the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

“When you have someone like John Murtha who’s been in Congress for nearly 40 years, there’s a lot of time, attention, and investment that the pro-Israel community put into that relationship,” said an official at a pro-Israel organization, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivities involved in internal congressional deliberations. “So when they die or retire, that is obviously the end of that investment, and you need to hope and pray their successor has also been the beneficiary of that attention from the pro-Israel community and they the recognize the importance” of that relationship.

Over the years, the Jewish community benefited from close ties to both Murtha and the defense subcommittee, according to an Israeli embassy official who labeled the former chair “very supportive” of the Jewish state’s missile defense projects, such as Arrow-2 and Arrow-3.

Murtha’s pro-Israel prowess, in fact, was on full display last year when he bucked Pentagon officials who recommended the Arrow-3 program receive decreased funding in 2010.

“The more time goes on, the less sacrosanct any weapons system or any military strategy is guaranteed for full renewal,” explained Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), the defense subcommittee’s sole Jewish member. “If there ever was a time when a good old boy network existed, or a certain kind of cronyism was alive, that has long ceased to exist on our subcommittee.”(See Rothman meeting examines U.S.-Israeli missile defense.)

Closed-door posturing by key members, Rothman explained, helped ensure that the program received $50 million, rather than the $37.5 million proposed by the Obama administration, according to internal documents provided by a subcommittee source. Several sources further noted that Rothman himself played a principal role in lobbying Murtha to support vital increases to the program.

It’s this type of commitment that the next chair will have to display to ensure joint U.S.-Israeli missile programs continue to thrive, according to a hill staffer close to the subcommittee.

“All it takes is a chairman who’s not 110 percent supportive, but 100 percent supportive,” said the staffer, who was not authorized to be interviewed. Though principal joint projects will be funded overall, the staffer explained that the subcommittee chair holds the key to upping dollar amounts through the budgeting process. “When there’s a change in the status quo, there are issues of what’s going to come next.”

A case in point is the subcommittee’s power to add millions to the president’s defense requests. For fiscal year 2010, for instance, President Obama requested $119.6 million to fund joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense projects. The subcommittee – per Rothman’s request, said the staffer close to the subcommittee – added $82.8 million to president’s proposed budget, bringing the total allotment to $202.4 million, according to the internal documents.

Most observers predict that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) will be next in line to assume the top post, given his seniority on the subcommittee. (Rep. Jim Moran [D-Va.] is third in line in seniority on the committee, but observers completely dismissed the notion that Moran would be a viable pick, given controversial statements he has made about Israel.)

As for Dicks, “I think it’s fair to say he’s been waiting 31 years for this opportunity and is exceptionally well prepared,” noted one source familiar with the subcommittee’s inner workings.

Referring to the selection process, the official at the pro-Israel organization explained that “there will be a behind-the-scenes discussion in Congress … and the pro-Israel community will ensure our voice is part of the mix.”

Dicks has been solid when it comes to Israel, according to William Daroff, Jewish Federations of North America’s vice president for public policy and director of its Washington office.

“He has a positive relationship with the Jewish community in Seattle,” Daroff said. “Those relationships are firm and long-standing.”

While Rothman withheld predictions about who the future chair will be, he did say, “I am optimistic … [that] funding [for U.S.-Israel defense projects] will continue on pace.”

Washington Jewish Week

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