Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Staunch Israel Supporter in U.S. Congress, Won't Seek Reelection

U.S. representative from Florida was the first Cuban-American elected to Congress and is the longest-serving female Republican in the House

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., center, during a news conference, in Miami, 2015.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior Republican woman in Congress and a staunch supporter of Israel, announced on Sunday that she will not seek reelection in 2018.

Ros-Lehtinen was the first Cuban-American elected to Congress, representing the state of Florida in the House of Representatives since 1989. She served as a state representative from 1983 to 1989. She emerged as a leading voice on issues related to Israel and is considered a strong supporter of the state.

“It’s been such a delight and a high honor to serve our community for so many years and help constituents every day of the week,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald in an interview on Sunday, adding, “We just said, ‘It’s time to take a new step.’” The paper, which covers Ros-Lehtinen’s hometown and district, noted that the November election was her closest in years — she defeated her Democratic challenger by 10 percentage points.

The relative closeness of the 2016 race has been attributed to the anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic campaign rhetoric of then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump. While Ros-Lehtinen’s district is considered Republican, it is home to many Hispanics. The congresswoman told the Miami Herald that her decision to retire was not spurred by fears that she might lose if she ran again in 2018. “There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I would not only win in this election, but I would win by a greater percentage,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen was the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for two years, from 2011 to 2013, and is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. In that capacity, she recently held a hearing on United Nations bias against Israel following the passage of Security Council Resolution 2334 which condemned Israeli settlements.

The congresswoman was harshly critical of the Obama administration’s policy toward Israel, and has led congressional delegations on trips to Israel. Ros-Lehtinen received campaign donations from supporters of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the late Irving Moskowitz, one of the biggest U.S. donors to settlements.

Ros-Lehtinen is a foreign-policy hawk in other areas as well, taking a hard line on Cuba — another point of contention with the Obama administration. On certain domestic issues, however, she is considered a moderate Republican. For the past two decades, she has supported lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and was a founding member and vice-chairwoman of the LGBT Equality Caucus in Congress. She has been among the most prominent Republican critics of Trump’s immigration policies.

Her support for Israel has not been unconditional. In 2010, Politico reported that Ros-Lehtinen expressed anger over a positive remark by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Fidel Castro, after the Cuban president criticized Iran in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Ros-Lehtinen’s displeasure with Netanyahu’s remarks led to a phone call in which the prime minister clarified his intentions — and effectively ended a short diplomatic opening between the two countries.