You can bet some pro-Israel hardliners won’t be weeping salt tears over today’s announcement by Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the dean of the congressional appropriations process, that he will be retiring.
But a lot of pro-Israel lobbyists who have worked with him over the years say his departure after 41 years in the House will be a big loss for the nation – and possibly for Israel.
“He’s one of the smartest people on Capitol Hill, and he knows every piece of the appropriations process,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist – who added that Obey, the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee has a “terrible temper.”
But Obey sometimes clashed with AIPAC and other nodes in the pro-Israel lobby. While consistently supportive of Israel – and Israel’s big chunk of foreign aid – he was intolerant of right-wing governments that he saw as resistant to peace efforts. Those clashes dated back at least to the government of Menachem Begin.
His standing with AIPAC took another hit in 1991, when he refused to stand up against President George H.W. Bush’s use of loan guarantees as a club against Israeli settlement construction.
In 2000, Obey said he was willing to use the aid weapon to stop Israel from selling advanced radar planes to China, telling colleagues that if the sale went through "Israel can forget my support for aid for the rest of my tenure in Congress." The veteran congressman was supportive of the Soviet Jewry movement – but also an outspoken opponent of Israel settling Soviet refugees in Gaza or the West Bank.
Obey, 71, told reporters that passage of this year’s health care reform measure meant it was a good time to leave, but his announcement also touched off speculation that he was worried about a tea party movement that promises to go after the entrenched Washington establishment.
And as the third longest-serving member of the House, Obey is about as entrenched as a politician can be.