Sharmila Devi
The National
November 5, 2010 - 12:00am

EW YORK // Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the likely head of the foreign affairs committee in the House of Representatives, has taken some conservative Republican stances on the Middle East and the Muslim world in the decades since she became the first Cuban-American to be elected as a congresswoman in 1989.

But if she takes charge of the committee to develop and move legislation on foreign policy, she may have to adopt more of a middle-ground attitude to regional issues now that the Republicans control the House after Tuesday's mid-term elections. At least, that is the hope of one authority on Palestinian issues.

"It's unrealistic to expect a House or committee controlled by an opposite party not to harass the president and Ros-Lehtinen has been one of the more extreme members in the past 10 years but she's never been a chair before," said Hussein Ibish, a permanent fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a think tank that pushes for a two-state solution. "It's one thing to be a ranking member struggling to get your voice heard and another to be the chair, and she might grow into the job once she has real responsibility."

Representing a heavily Jewish-American district in Florida, Mrs Ros-Lehtinen has supported an uncompromising stand on Iran, opposed recent US administration pressure on Israel and questioned the planned sale of $60 billion (Dh220bn) of US arms to Saudi Arabia. Born in Havana, she has also pushed hard against any moves to normalise US travel and trade ties with Cuba.

This year, she attacked Feisal Abdul Rauf, the moderate Sufi imam behind the Park51 Islamic centre that might be built near the site of the September 11 attack in New York and who has conducted outreach in the Middle East on behalf of the US, saying: "This radical is a terrible choice to be one of the faces of our country overseas."

She is one several Republicans now expected to take control of House committees which, as well as shaping legislation, can call investigative hearings and seek subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify.

Other potential Republican committee leaders include Darrell Issa of California, who is of Lebanese descent and sits on the oversight and government reform committee, and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is on the budget committee.

Neither foreign policy nor US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan topped any polls of voter concerns ahead of this year's elections. A 9.6 per cent unemployment rate, along with rising debt and deficits, were the biggest worries for most Americans.

Compared with domestic policy, Republicans have less room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, which traditionally is the preserve of the presidency. Barack Obama has his presidential power of veto, unused so far, while the Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate.

Nonetheless, Mrs Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow Republicans have the potential to make a lot of noise and obstruct Mr Obama's agenda on foreign policy.

One partisan tool that might be wielded against the Obama administration is a push to vote on an amendment to include non-proliferation provisions in any future "123 agreements", in which countries buy US nuclear technology for civil programmes.

Mr Obama has been criticised for pursuing civil nuclear deals with Jordan and Vietnam that could exclude the kind of non-proliferation provisions included in the 2009 pact with the UAE. The administration has also signed memoranda of understanding on nuclear co-operation with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Mrs Ros-Lehtinen, along with Eric Cantor, now the No 2 Republican in the House, have both expressed their desire to remove annual US aid to Israel of about $3 billion from the foreign aid budget to the treasury, enabling them to vote against foreign aid without damaging Israeli interests.

This would entail creating a new legal framework to make Israel a permanent and institutionalised US beneficiary. Mr Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine, said that is not likely to happen.

"Such a move would be a cute manoeuvre but have powerful legal implications and it isn't anything the Israelis are pushing for."

He noted the shift in the last couple of years by hawkish congressmen from an unconditional, pro-Israel position towards recognition of the need for a Palestinian state if Israel is to remain a democratic and Jewish-majority state. They include the Democrats Gary Ackerman, from New York, and Howard Berman, a California congressman who is the outgoing chair of the foreign affairs committee.

Mr Ibish said it could take a couple of months before the administration decides how to push forward the stalled Middle East peace process after fully digesting defeat in the election. Policy would continue to be set by Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, who addressed the American Task Force on Palestine's gala last month.

"I promise you this," Mrs Clinton said, "the Obama administration will not turn our backs on the Palestinian people or the people of Israel."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017