Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 31, 2013.
Freshman Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-VA) rise to the chairmanship of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East panel could represent a boon to a nascent peace-process. Though subtle, the shift might best be encapsulated by comparing Kaine to his predecessor: he’ll succeed outgoing chair Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). Casey, for example, frequently declares that Jerusalem must forever remain the eternal, undivided capital of the state of Israel—a non-starter for the Palestinians, who want the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.
The subcommittee that Kaine will lead handles matters involving U.S. relations with the countries of the Middle East and Arab North Africa. But how important is a Senate committee in a policy area where the White House sets policy and the House of Representatives controls the purse strings? “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a limited legislative role,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress with the American Enterprise Institute. “But it has a long and historic and prestigious role overseeing U.S. foreign policy.” Ornstein expounded on that role: “A subcommittee can hold hearings, call witnesses, spotlight issues and controversies, meet with foreign leaders, and influence public opinion and at times an administration. So this is, especially now, a key subcommittee and a real spotlight for Kaine.”
Kaine comes with a strong background in U.S. politics: he served as the mayor of Richmond from 1998 to 2001; as the Governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010; and as the Chairperson of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011. When he won his senate seat in 2012, it was one of the tightest races in the country.
Notably, Kaine is now a J Street PAC endorsed candidate. According to J Street’s website, “Kaine speaks of himself as a Truman Democrat,” with a commitment to making Israel a long lasting, safe and secure home for the Jewish people, and one that exists at peace with its Palestinian neighbors. J Street released a statement Monday congratulating Kaine for his appointment, reaffirming the “grand tradition of Truman Democrats.”
New Republic senior editor John Judis, whose forthcoming book “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” explores the role the U.S. played in the repeated failed attempts at negotiating peace, explained that being a “Truman Democrat” might not quite describe what people today believe it does. Despite the “popular perception” of Truman as the man who first recognized the state of Israel and the immense praise he garnered after leaving the presidency, Judis noted, Truman’s relationship with Israel was actually much more complicated at the time. Judis continued:
During the first years of [Truman’s] presidency, and even after he had granted recognition to the new state, Truman was ambivalent about supporting a Jewish state, which he identified at one point with a theocracy, and would have preferred some kind of arrangement that would have accommodated Jews and Arabs within one state or a federated state.
However, Judis remarked that he’s sure this is not the Truman that Kaine self-identifies with.
Kaine could be boosted by his subcommittee, a bastion of support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This past March 27 senators signed a letter authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) calling for a sustained U.S. diplomatic initiative to help forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution; Casey didn’t sign it, but Kaine did. Moreover, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Jean Shaheen (D-NH) and Chris Coons (D-DE), three other senators on the Middle East subcommittee also signed on. About a quarter of the Senate added their names to support a strong U.S. leadership in negotiating a two-state solution, but forty percent of the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East now has. That’s substantial.
Kaine’s also proven himself a friend of Israel—during his governorship he oversaw an initiative promoting bilateral cooperation and increased commercial ties between Virginia and Israel. But, unlike Casey, that record doesn’t include support for every “pro-Israel” initiative making its way through Congress. In March, the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act picked up 50 cosponsors—Kaine not among them. The controversial bill included provisions such as inviting Israel into the visa waiver program without requiring them to provide reciprocal travel privileges for U.S. citizens due to “security concerns.” Critics of the bill contended that it would codify discrimination against U.S. citizens of Arab, Muslim and especially Palestinian descent.
The peace process, which formally resumed after an Iftar dinner on Monday night in Washington, will require sustained political support in Congress over the coming months. John Kerry and his team’s future efforts will largely be impacted by the extent to which they’re taken seriously by Israelis and Palestinians during negotiations. Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, in describing Kerry’s diplomacy in Israel, said Kerry “embraced and supported, but knew how to pressure and to threaten.” Building support in positions of Congressional leadership for this tack will prove important in sending a message that the United States is serious about these negotiations.
Kaine could be just the man to take up that campaign on the Hill.