Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2002, page 34

Special Report

Retiring Sen. Jesse Helms Caved to Pro-Israel Lobby Halfway Through His Career

By Lucille Barnes

Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) will retire in 2003 after 30 years in Washington, DC. He became a synonym for negativism, mean-spiritedness, generally clothed in “yes ma’ams,” and elaborate phrases that in no way masked his contempt for anyone who disagreed with him. As one writer put it, Senator Helms had become the Taliban right-wing of American obstructionism. Among his trademarks were an anti-government populism and an almost unique ability to obstruct even the most routine Senate business to squeeze further benefits for his North Carolina constituents. The public was the loser.

There were times when his mean-spiritedness completely overruled the false courtesy. During the Clinton administration, for example, Mr. Helms once remarked that if the president visited North Carolina he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

After years of vicious innuendo, perhaps some of his earlier unpleasantries have been forgotten by younger readers. In 1984, however, Senator Helms made the most astonishing turnaround in American politics. The occasion was the closest election in Jesse Helms’ already long career.

Prior to his run for re-election Jesse Helms had been described by the Israel lobby as the most dangerous opponent of Israel in the United States. In fact, his record on Israel was the most negative of any member of the Senate, he had the lowest rating of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of any senator.

As a result, the Israel lobby invested perhaps one of the country’s biggest campaign contributions per capita in an attempt to unseat Jesse Helms. Pro-Israel political action committees poured an astonishing $222,342 into the campaign of Helms’ opponent, North Carolina Governor James Hunt. Hunt’s campaign secretary proclaimed that “Senator Helms has the worst anti-Israel record in the United States Senate and supporters of Israel throughout the country know it.”

After squeaking by with the narrowest of margins, Jesse Helms promptly “saw the light.” The senator gathered together as many of his North Carolina Jewish constituents as he could, and together they set out on a pilgrimage to Israel. There he had himself photographed wearing a yarmulke and kissing the Western Wall. Upon his return, the reborn Jesse Helms bombarded the media with a series of pro-Israel statements.

From that time on there was virtually no electoral trick to which Jesse Helms did not resort to increase the appropriations for Israel from the Defense Department, the State Department and perhaps half a dozen other different federal agency budgets.

Although, given his earlier predilections, Senator Helms may have been holding his nose, friends of Israel received a warm response for anything the Israeli government wanted. The “new Jesse Helms” never again wavered on behalf of Israel.

Helms announced that he would exempt from cuts the more than one-third of total U.S. foreign aid that goes to Israel because such aid is “in the strategic interest of the U.S.” This was doubly ironic because, in the 1984 campaign, Helms’ defense against charges that he was anti-Israel was that since entering the Senate in 1973 he had been against all foreign aid.

The reincarnated Jesse Helms changed his stand on Jerusalem. Prior to 1984 virtually all Western embassies were situated in Tel Aviv. Now Helms joined the cry to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, regardless of what other Western embassies did. There, too, Jesse Helms has never looked back.

In his new guise Helms also strongly opposed the stationing of U.S. troops in the Golan Heights on the grounds that this would limit Israel’s freedom of movement. To this day, Israel has resisted any attempts to define a working treaty to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

A friend once asked this writer if he should support (the old) Jesse Helms in view of the fact that the Israel lobby had put the senator at the bottom of their list of Israel backers. Would supporting Jesse Helms be the best way to combat the Israel lobby? In all honesty, I could not answer. I thought of Helms’ stubborn obstructionism against the United Nations: he single-handedly prevented the U.S. from paying its dues to the world body and blocked constructive support for hundreds of necessary efforts to help people in the Third World. All I could answer was that if I had to choose between the Israel lobby and Jesse Helms, I would really not know what to do. Since 1984, however, my dilemma was simplified.

Politics does make strange bedfellows. But Jesse Helms’ turnaround was the very worst of all. In the words of New York Times writer Bill Keller:

Mr. Helms will not be missed;

Unrelenting jingoist,

He sold us bullies of their realms,

Not excluding Mr. Helms.

Lucille Barnes covers Washington, DC for U.S. and Middle East publications.