Washington — One of the most overlooked, yet potentially most far-reaching, changes in a new Congress full of changes is that it may prove less staunchly pro-Israel than its predecessors.
Indeed, Israel has lost crucially placed congressional friends at a time when events in the Middle East increasingly affect the United States. At the same time, Arab interests appear to have gained strength.
Supporters of Israel counsel caution in assessing the yet-to-convene Congress. But they refer to it in terms such as "pessimistic," "disturbing," and "uncertain."
An official of the National Association of Arab-Americans, meanwhile, optimistically foresees "a skeptical attitude" toward US military and economic support of Israel replacing "the rubber-stamping of the past," at least in the Senate.
The whiffs oc change in Medeast policies on Capitol Hill may be personified by an ethnic change occurring in the Senate.
Left without an Arab-American voice after the retirement two years ago of Sen. James G. Abourezk (D) of South Dakota, the Senate now includes two members of Arab ancestry.
One is Senator-elect James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota, a member of the House of Representatives of Lebanese descent who in November defeated Sen. George Mc- Govern, a stoutly pro-Israel Democrat.
The other is Sen. George J. Mitchell (D) of Maine, appointed in May to complete the unexpired term of Edmund S. Muskie after he became secretary of state. Mr. Mitchell's mother is a Lebanese immigrant, and he grew up in a tightly knit Maronite Lebanese-American community.
Both are expected to come under increasing pressure from Arab-Americans to speak out on their behalf.
Questionnaires circulated by groups backing Israel continue to show strong support for the longtime alliance in Congress as a whole. But support where it counts the most, in key committees and among committee leaders, shows signs of thinning.
Changes in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the prime congressional participant in US foreign policy, may be felt most keenly. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the preeminent lobbying group for Israel, calls the changes "dramatic" and bemoans "the loss of four friends of Israel."
Missing from the Foreign Relations Committee are such pro-Israel stalwarts as outgoing chairman Frank Church (D) of Idaho (defeated by Rep. Steven D. Symms, a Republican with past involvement with the radical Arab government of Libya); ranking minority member Jacob K. Javits (R) of New York; Richard B. Stone (D) of Florida, chairman of its Near Eastern subcommittee; and Mr. McGovern. The new chairman of the committee will be Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois, who advocates tempering the traditional US strong support for Israel with a more "evenhanded" Middle East policy.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls the spending of federal money, will be chaired by Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, a sometime critic of aid to Israel. He sought unsuccessfully in 1979 to cut Israel's $1 billion in annual military aid by 10 percent to show American disapproval of Israel's use of US-supplied arms in neighboring Lebanon.
The switch in party control of the Senate also catapults into positions of influence as committee chairmen three members of a tiny minority of seven who voted in the last Congress for two amendments to trim American aid to Israel (Senator Hatfield's on military aid and another by Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III [ D] of Illinois to cut economic aid by $250 million).
Besides Hatfield, the two others are Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho and Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R) of North Carolina, chairmen-to-be of the energy and agriculture committees, respectively.
Pro-Israel forces will lose two firm supporters on the House Foreign Affairs Committee: Rep. Lester L. Wolff (D) of New York and Rep. John H. Buchanan Jr. (R) of Alabama. And heavy campaign contributions from the American Jewish community failed to defeat another committee member, Rep. Paul Findley (R) of Illinois, who has worked hard at forging US contacts with th e Palestine Liberation Organization.