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Freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin thrust into role as a top GOP spokesman on Israel

October 16, 2015
In The News

WASHINGTON -- Long Island's freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, is emerging as a front-line spokesman for the GOP's hawkish views on Israel amid an intensified focus on U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Since being elected, Zeldin (R-Shirley) already has appeared a dozen times on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, most recently to defend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress this week from criticism by Jewish Democrats such as Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) who call it a political ploy.

Members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who include influential conservative supporters of Israel and who backed Zeldin's election, say they have great hopes for Zeldin as a future political leader.

"He has a clear-eyed vision of foreign policy and how to protect our country, and in this day and age that's vital," said RJC board member Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush.

Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Committee, said he respects Zeldin, but notes he's a new House member still "learning the ropes."

"Just due to the nature of events, he's been forced to come out every time when a Jewish Republican is needed," Rosenbaum said. Zeldin became the lone Jewish Republican in Congress after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost a primary last year and resigned. Jewish Democrats hold nine Senate seats and 18 House seats.

Zeldin, 35, who represents Long Island's East End, said in an interview that he has embraced his high-profile role as a supporter of Israel. "If you get presented with the opportunity to talk about issues you care very passionately about, and because of it you are able to get an extra opportunity to advance a cause you believe in, you really should welcome it," Zeldin said. Related committees

Zeldin has been primed for the role by House Republican leaders, who named him to the Foreign Affairs Committee and as a co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus.

Zeldin, a lawyer, also brings military experience to bear: He served in Iraq in 2006 and is an Army Reserves major. He is a member of the Jewish War Veterans and an Oakdale temple, according to his campaign biography last year.

Surprisingly, Zeldin said he has never been to Israel. "I'll be visiting Israel at least once by summertime," he said. "This will be my first visit."

And Zeldin is not listed among the speakers at the conference in Washington this week of the American Israel Political Action Committee, the top pro-Israel lobbying group.

Still, Rosenbaum said he is concerned about attempts by Zeldin and the Republican Jewish Coalition to "drive a wedge between American Jews on a purely political perspective." The RJC's leaders include casinos magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Republicans.

Most American Jews are Democrats: a Pew Research Center in 2013 put the figure at seven out of 10.

For years, Republicans have argued that while Democrats are for Israel, "we're for Israel more," said public policy scholar Dan Schnur, editor of the book "American Politics and the Jewish Community" and a former Republican strategist. Obama's tensions with Netanyahu "have allowed Republicans to frame the party differences in a much more pronounced way," Schnur said.

In a Fox News appearance, Zeldin accused the State Department of funding a nonprofit to "overthrow" Netanyahu in Israel's March 17 elections, saying that he and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had written the department seeking information. The State Department said it did not fund political activities.

Faults White House on CNN

On CNN, Zeldin complained that the White House omitted Jews from the list of terrorist targets in its proposed congressional authorization for the use of force against the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL.

And Zeldin has repeatedly defended the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, without consulting with the White House.

Netanyahu is expected to argue that Obama's envisioned agreement from negotiations with Iran to limit its nuclear-weapons capabilities would threaten Israel's existence.

Rep. Israel, who held a meeting of Jewish Democrats and the Israeli ambassador to urge a delay of the speech, said Boehner had turned support for Israel into "a political football."

Zeldin said there are "competing visions within the Democratic Party" and "diverse views" in the Republican Party on how to approach the Middle East. Overall, Zeldin said, "I think there is strong bipartisan support for Israel."

But on CNN, Zeldin said Netanyahu should be "welcomed with open arms" by members of Congress. And on Fox News, he said, "When you add it all up, it's kind of hard to explain the growing daylight between this president and Netanyahu."