|WASHINGTON – Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t pleased. She had just moved into her roomy new offices as the incoming House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman only to find a row of her photos blocked by a poorly placed bookcase.
While the requisite glory wall of pictures of the congresswoman alongside luminaries ranging from the Dalai Lama to Binyamin Netanyahu was in full view, as were her family snapshots and images with distinguished American military officers, largely concealed was the lineup of a Styrofoam boat, a floating truck and other peculiar water-based vessels.
Ros-Lehtinen has collected these images from US Coast Guard photographers under strict instructions to send the 58- year-old Havana native-turned- Florida representative a picture any time they capture an unusual boat full of Cuban refugees trying to reach America.
“These are people who hear 24/7 that the United States is their enemy. And yet, they will take anything that floats and try to come over here to the land that they love because they know there’s freedom,” Ros- Lehtinen said in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, her first with an Israeli newspaper since being named committee chair for the new Republican-led Congress, which assumes control in January.
Ros-Lehtinen didn’t take a boat from Cuba to the US in 1960 – her family arrived on one of the last Pan Am flights out – but she clearly identifies with those who are determined to reach the American shore any way they can. And that informs not only her attachment to the US, but her view of the foreign policy that she will now shape.
“I believe in the promise of America. Being a Cuban refugee, having come here when I was eight, I know that this is a shining city on the hill.
It’s been that way for me, my family and the great majority of people I represent in south Florida,” she said. “It’s a special place, and I believe in the prominence of America, and having America be and continue to be an exceptional place, and making no apologies for America being a superpower.”
She summed up the pillars of that worldview in the statement she issued after being chosen as the chairwoman earlier this month: “Isolate and hold our enemies accountable, while supporting and strengthening our allies.
“I support strong sanctions and other penalties against those who aid violent extremists, brutalize their own people and have time and time again rejected calls to behave as responsible nations,” she elaborated, and then warned, “Rogue regimes never respond to anything less than hardball.”
TOP OF Ros-Lehtinen’s list of rogue regimes is Iran, a country in her sights for years as Congress debated sanctions on its energy sector. She was glad to see sanctions finally passed this summer after lackluster support from Democratic and Republican White Houses alike, but she still thinks there are too many loopholes and waivers the administration can use to let companies doing business with Teheran off the hook. She’s planning to submit legislation toughening those provisions after she assumes the gavel.
“Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is a tireless advocate for America’s national security,” said Republican Senator Mark Kirk, a key author of the Iran sanctions legislation in the House before taking over President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat this winter. “She’s going to play a critical role next year in enforcing US sanctions against Iran and holding the State Department accountable.”
“She’s disarming but tough,” said Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, who is on the Foreign Affairs Committee and anticipates working with her on further Iran measures in the next Congress. “She’s a strong advocate of a pro-Israel position and an anti-nuclear Iran position, and she expresses those views strongly even when they involve criticizing a Republican or Democratic administration.”
For Ros-Lehtinen, security for Israel meshes with other US national security priorities.
“We need to help Israel, we need to show Israel that we are strongly in its corner,” she stressed.
“I think she’ll be terrific on Israel relations issues. I don’t think there’s anybody better,” assessed Morrie Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and currently the head of the staunchly pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee.
“She’s 100 percent behind making Israel secure. I can’t think of any issue affecting Israel in which she hasn’t been on the right side,” enthused Amitay, whose PAC has funded her campaigns generously over the years and who was close enough to her to attend a celebration in honor of the PhD in education she received from the University of Miami in 2004, 15 years into her tenure in Congress. Ros- Lehtinen started out as a teacher and principal before running for the Florida state legislature and then the US House.
And her roots don’t only extend to Cuba. Her maternal grandparents, who were Jewish, fled Turkey for Cuba, making her Jewish according to Jewish law. He mother ended up converting to Catholicism to marry her father, and she now considers herself Episcopalian.
But Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the idea that her religious background has had any influence on her attitude toward Israel. In fact, she said that she doesn’t like to talk about her Jewish heritage because it can lead people to question her stance on Middle East issues – as well as view her as opportunistic. Her district in southern Florida, after all, has a healthy contingent of Jewish voters.
“I don’t talk about it because people then think, oh all of the sudden… she’s discovered Jewish roots. But I didn’t just discover it,” she explained, “I would have the same thoughts and the same attitudes if I did not have Jewish ancestry.”
THOSE ATTITUDES include strong support for aid to Israel despite a Republican climate hostile to spending, in which foreign aid is seen as particularly vulnerable. Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged the threat, saying, “I don’t know what the leadership wants to do in terms of levels of funding. If they say 5 percent across the board for everybody then that’s the way it is.”
But she also suggested ways of securing Israel aid by having it considered separately as security assistance.
Those prospects, however, don’t sit well with Democrats who are concerned about the implications of distinguishing aid to Israel.
“Foreign aid – including aid to Israel – is a tiny fraction of our budget that pays mammoth dividends,” argued National Jewish Democratic Council president David Harris.
“For America to remain engaged as a world leader, and for the sake of Israel’s security, Congress must fully fund foreign aid and aid to Israel together. As the pro- Israel community has said for decades, the two cannot be separated for a host of reasons.”
Others on the progressive side of the Jewish community are concerned about her posture toward the Palestinians.
While Ros-Lehtinen said she supports a two-state solution, she expressed concern that current US policies were leading toward a three-state solution as the Palestinians fracture between Hamas and Fatah. She considers Hamas, which openly calls for the destruction of Israel, much more extreme than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an independent. But she made clear that doesn’t mean she holds them in high regard.
“This feeling that Abbas and Fayyad are the good guys, if they’re the good guys then we should start praying for Israel’s safety right now, because these are folks who have not wanted to be true partners for peace,” she declared. “They do not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a free, democratic, Jewish state.
They will not abide by prior commitments, they will not sit and negotiate with Israel.”
And she was particularly troubled by the way the US has provided financial assistance to the PA.
“They know they don’t have to do a darn thing; with this administration they will get a blank check and they will always get helped out,” she said. “Try looking at their budgets and try examining where they’re using their money and where our US dollars are going.
If you track US dollars, you’ll never find out where that money goes.”
Her stance on the PA, as on many issues, puts her at odds with the White House, but Ros- Lehtinen isn’t one to shy away from confrontation. In this case, her statements come just as the Obama administration has emphasized state-building as a way of continuing progress on the peace process after talks stalled when Israel refused to extend a settlement moratorium and the Palestinians refused to have direct talks without a freeze in place. The program, which trains PA security forces and builds governing institutions, is heavily premised on the notion that Abbas and particularly Fayyad are men of peace.
“Prime Minister Fayyad has accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time under very difficult circumstances,” maintained Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a recent event outlining the American commitment to continue to support his program. “Along with President Abbas, he has brought strong leadership to the Palestinian Authority and he has helped advance the cause of a two-state solution by making a real difference in the lives of the Palestinian people.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s opposition could make it harder to get upward of $200 million in annual funding for the PA budget approved, as well as other paths of assistance to the Palestinians.
Middle East observers on the left, many of whom see the efforts of Abbas and Fayyad as creating the conditions on the ground for peace by bringing greater security and economic growth to the West Bank, are worried about the vacuum created if they fail.
“US aid to the Palestinians is not a blank check but an investment in peace and security. It supports specific humanitarian needs, state-building efforts and the building of a security service that is professional and accountable,” said Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir.
He contended that Congress already provides the necessary oversight of US assistance.
“Thanks to Congress, America’s aid program to the Palestinians is probably the most conditioned, restricted and audited aid program in the world.”
Hadar Susskind, president of policy and strategy for J Street, had a more dire assessment.
“Many of the positions she’s taken, whether it’s letters or resolutions she’s written or statements she’s made, are really dangerous,” he charged. He pointed to a letter to Clinton Ros-Lehtinen sponsored this summer which called for the PLO mission in Washington to be ejected from the country.
“If you’re trying to lead a peace process between these two groups, deporting the diplomats from one group doesn’t help that process,” he said.
ROS-LEHTINEN has also been scathing when it comes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, another major source of funding for Palestinian civilians provided largely by US government donations.
The money is intended to fund schools, hospitals and other basic services for Palestinian refugees, but Ros-Lehtinen labeled it “a propaganda tool to bash Israel” and has included language tightening American oversight of any funds it gives to UNWRA.
The legislation would also forbid the US from holding a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – a forum for repeated attacks on Israel – and would hold back a proportionate share of America’s UN contribution for any funding to the council unless the State Department certifies that member countries aren’t human rights violators and terror sponsors.
Ros-Lehtinen’s UN oversight legislation languished when it was first introduced in 2007.
Now at the committee helm she expects it to move, and will soon hold hearings to draw public attention to what she views as a host of UN ills, including outright anti-Semitism.
Still, the Obama administration reversed a decision made under George W. Bush to participate in the council and prizes multilateralism, making it unlikely to back her measure.
But from Ros-Lehtinen’s perspective, “If Cuba wants to fund the UN Human Rights Council, have at it. We should not be funding it.”
Cuba, one of whose officials is a vice president of the council, is a perennial target of Ros-Lehtinen’s.
And vice versa – a point of pride to the first Latina to serve in Congress.
After Fidel Castro criticized her as a “fierce wolf” when it became clear she would be the new committee chairwoman, she tweeted, “BINGO: 1st Evo Morales slams me, then [Hugo] Chavez calls me bandit + now Fidel says I’m Loba Feroz…”
She is set to impose obstacles to any administration efforts to improve the US relationship with Cuba, and marvels at finding herself in a position to do so.
“I would have never thought it in a million years. Neither would my parents when we first came over here,” she said.
“When we first came over here, I was eight and I didn’t know a word of English, and here I am a member of Congress and being a chair – a chair of foreign affairs.”
And not just the committee chair, but the highest-ranking female Republican in Congress.
“Is this a great country or what?” she asked with boisterous laugh. “It’s incredible. It says a lot, not about me but about the opportunities available in this country.”