Israelis Sorry to See Helms Retire

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Two leading Israeli diplomats who have worked in Washington said Thursday they were sorry to hear that Senator Jesse Helms, a long-time supporter of Israel, plans to retire.

The 79-year-old North Carolina Republican announced on Wednesday that he did not plan to seek re-election to a sixth term in the Senate. He will be that state's longest serving Senator when he retires after 30 years service in 2002.

As the head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations until the GOP lost control of the Senate several months ago, Helms had a strong influence on American relations with Israel, a country he considered a strategic ally rather than a liability.

"For many years he was a staunch and proven friend of Israel," said former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Zalman Shoval. "He understood Israel's basic concerns. He was a no-nonsense person where security was concerned."

Shoval served as ambassador in Washington from 1990-93 and again from 1998-2000.

He recalled how Helms had made an effort to work out a formula enabling Israel to receive U.S. loan guarantees to help absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants flooding out of the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism there.

Israel was engaged at the time in a major dispute with the first Bush administration over how the money would be used, and specifically whether the new arrivals in Israel would be settled in territories claimed by the Arabs.

Helms had always been willing to fight for things that were both "right and important," Shoval said.

He believed Helms had left a "concrete imprint" on the work of the Foreign Relations committee, which would continue to guide its work in the future.

Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli Embassy liaison to the U.S. Congress, described Helms as having been "an asset to the cause of realism in the shaping of U.S. international policy."

"Jesse Helms has made an awesome contribution in the battle against wishful thinking overall, and to Israel's national security in particular," Ettinger said.

"He was one of the legislators that realized all along the nature of U.S.-Israeli relations [was based on] a mutuality of interests rather than a one-way street."

Helms had regarded Israel as "a strategic partner of the U.S. rather than a passive recipient of U.S. aid."

Helms believed so strongly that foreign aid to Israel was in the national security interests of the U.S. that he tried for years to have the "foreign aid" given to Israel each year transferred to the defense budget, Ettinger recalled.

He believed that if Israel didn't exist in the Middle East, the U.S. would have to invest much more than the $3 billion it gives Israel in foreign aid annually to beef up its deterrence capabilities, gather intelligence information and establish potential landing sites in the region.

According to Ettinger, Helms saw it as an "injustice" to Israel's image in American and bilateral relations not to acknowledge that the money being given Israel aids U.S. defense.

Helms sees Israel not only as the only democracy in the Middle East, but also a "frontline outpost of Western democracy, a bastion of American attempts to stabilize the region [and] a critical element of the U.S. posture of deterrence."

"He rarely cared about the popularity contest on Capitol Hill ... in an era when the Western world [is inundated] with convenience-driven politicians, he was one of the conviction-driven statesmen," Ettinger said.