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What Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer did for US-Israel ties

The outgoing US Speaker and Majority Leader strengthened the relationship immeasurably through their public actions and, especially, behind the scenes
Left: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves the chamber, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Right: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., arrives at the Capitol, Nov. 17, 2022. (Photos: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Left: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves the chamber, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Right: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., arrives at the Capitol, Nov. 17, 2022. (Photos: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

On January 3, Democrats in the US House of Representatives will, for the first time in almost twenty years, be led by a new team of leaders. Much has been written about how much the outgoing team of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has accomplished in those years. Having worked closely with both since they first came to Congress, I saw firsthand the tremendous impact the leaders had on the US-Israel relationship in particular, both through the very public actions they took, but especially in the critical behind-the-scenes role they played over nearly four decades.

For Speaker Pelosi, Israel’s creation was, as she has repeatedly stated, “the greatest achievement of the 20th century.” She learned that early on from a father who, as a congressman and later mayor from Baltimore, was outspoken in his support for the Jewish people and for the fledgling state of Israel. Majority Leader Hoyer became an early champion for the cause of Soviet Jewry and came to appreciate Israel as a key strategic and democratic US ally from his work on the US Helsinki commission and on the appropriations committee. In fact, one moment I will never forget was in June 2000 when the then-Republican chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, Sonny Callahan, offered a rare amendment in committee to eliminate a key provision of Israel’s aid. Committee members Pelosi, Hoyer and Rep. Nita Lowey quickly joined together to lead the successful effort to oppose that amendment.

Together, the two leaders were responsible for passing countless pieces of legislation that made the US-Israel relationship as strong as it is today, including providing critical foreign assistance to Israel, expanding Iron Dome funding, criticizing the UN for its treatment of Israel and even then-President Obama for not supporting Israel at the UN, supporting Israel’s right to self-defense at key moments during its many wars in Lebanon and Gaza, opposing large arms packages to Israel’s enemies, pressuring the Palestinians to end their support for terrorism, supporting loan guarantees to Israel, and mandating the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

They did so using all the avenues available to leadership – and then some. As Speaker, Pelosi rarely sponsored or even supported legislation, but Hoyer’s name has been at the top of countless pro-Israel bills, letters and resolutions. What is less well known is the vital work they did behind the scenes to strengthen the US-Israel relationship. As leaders, they determined what bills did – and did not – make it to the House floor. It is no coincidence that so many pro-Israel bills and amendments did come up for a vote – and those not supportive died a quiet death. It is also no coincidence that those key committees responsible for foreign policy issues had so many members who were strong supporters of the US-Israel relationship. When a pro-Israel vote or issue came up, both could be seen intensively lobbying their Democratic colleagues in caucus meetings and on the floor, making sure the pro-Israel position prevailed. And throughout their careers, they led their colleagues in dozens of congressional trips to Israel – Pelosi almost every other year, including in 2020 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and in 2018 to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary; every two years for close to 20 years, Hoyer organized trips to Israel for the incoming Democratic freshman class. Over 200 Democratic members of Congress were exposed to Israel, many for the first time, through 10 of these intensive, Hoyer-initiated one-week trips.

There were, of course, difficult moments, the most difficult one being during the congressional deliberations over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which both supported and then Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress opposing the deal.

But that was the exception. US-Israel relations would not be nearly as close as they are today were it not for the tireless, decades-long efforts of these two leaders. Fortunately, both Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Katherine Clark – who were groomed and elected to replace them – have strong pro-Israel records and close ties to their Jewish communities. But they have big shoes to fill and new challenges to face. An extraordinary era has ended. Only time will tell whether this new leadership will be able to bring the same intensity, commitment, passion and success to the US-Israel alliance that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer brought to it these many decades.

About the Author
Ester Kurz is the former Director of Legislative Strategy and Policy at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.