Does The U.S. Have A Plan?
Is there a new American plan for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? Despite dire warnings from Jerusalem of a tough new U.S. proposal, it appears that officials here are sticking to the broad suggestions they made in January. The Netanyahu government last week asked Jewish groups for help in fighting what they said was an impending new American initiative. The results, they told leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, would be new pressure on Israel and potential disruptions in U.S.-Israel relations.
The government also dispatched UN Ambassador Dore Gold to work Republican staffers on Capitol Hill and Netanyahu media adviser David Bar-Illan for meetings with conservative columnists.
But administration officials continue to insist — publicly and privately — that they are simply looking
for ways to advance bridging proposals made during the January twin summits in Washington.
Last week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, responding to questions from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), expressed both her frustration and her wariness about comprehensive new American plans.
“There is no such thing as an American plan,” she said. “We have some ideas that we have been proposing. And I have said over and over again that it is essential for the leaders to make the hard decisions. They have not been making them, and that is a disappointment to all of us.”
Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, described the Israeli offensive as “a preemptive strike,” based more on the high level of frustration in Washington than on any evidence of a change in policy.
“I spent a day in Washington last week, and I walked away comfortable that there is no new plan. They’ll continue to nudge the parties, but I saw no indication of new pressure, and no sign that they will launch any surprise initiatives,” he said.
Administration sources say the only real debate now is whether or not to publicly disclose details of the January proposals — details that have already appeared in the media here and in Israel.
Israel Praised, Arab Allies Slammed
What’s that? Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), the chair of the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and a persistent critic of foreign aid, praising Israel while condemning America’s Arab allies?
That’s what happened at last week’s hearings of the subcommittee, headlined by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Speaking to Albright, Callahan, who last year threatened to hold up Israel’s assistance over a controversy involving emergency aid for Jordan, attacked friendly Arab states that refused to support Washington in the latest confrontation with Iraq.
“Some of us are grossly disappointed that some of the very countries that you are requesting aid for this coming year, and countries that have been huge recipients of American aid in the past — both military and other aid — did not … come to your side when you visited them,” he said.
Callahan’s barbs seemed aimed largely at Egypt, the second biggest recipient of American money, which did not support the American anti-Saddam effort.
Administration officials have dropped unmistakable hints that they expect Egypt to follow Israel’s lead and propose a voluntary aid cut, but apparently the message hasn’t gotten across to the Mubarak government.
“There’s a lot of resentment about Egypt’s role in the peace process, and they haven’t been doing themselves any good by criticizing American efforts in the region,” said a lobbyist for a big Jewish group here. “And this year, they may not have the pro-Israel groups pushing aid. If the pro-Israel groups sit this one out, Egyptian aid may be in for a real rough ride.”
What about Israel? Callahan was full of praise, telling Albright that “I don’t imagine you had to call Mr. Netanyahu twice before he immediately responded.”
Meanwhile, Israeli officials and representatives of the Clinton administration have held low-key meetings in recent weeks to work out the details of the aid cut proposed by Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman early in the year.
Capitol Hill observers report that the process has been arduous, and that Neeman may return in the next few weeks to expedite the discussions, which will also involve representatives of the congressional leadership.
The plan involves a 10-year phase out in economic aid, with some of the money redirected to military assistance.
Albright, speaking before Callahan’s subcommittee, praised Israel’s willingness to address the aid cut issue directly.
New Pollard Push On Hill
The effort to spring convicted spy Jonathan Jay Pollard from the federal prison in Butner, N.C., seems to be gaining momentum, although there’s no indication yet of how the movement is playing where it really counts — at the White House.
Israeli Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh, designated by the government to deal with the sticky issue, announced plans to visit Pollard in the next few weeks, the latest in a series of Israeli officials who have made the trek.
This week there were reports in the Israeli press that the government is prepared to recognize Pollard as an agent, something he has sought for years. But top government officials denied that any promises were made, although there is a clear sense in Israel that policy on Pollard is shifting.
Pollard also received visits recently from Yitzchak Oren, an official at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and Tommy Baer, president of B’nai B’rith, who said that if Pollard weren’t released soon, “it has the potential to become the closest thing to an American Dreyfus case,” although he added that such direct comparisons are inaccurate because Pollard was guilty and Dreyfus was not.
Baer said that Jewish groups, including his own, will be more involved in the effort to win Pollard’s release, and that both Jewish groups and Israeli officials are starting to lobby Congress to build pressure for commutation.
“We made it clear that B’nai B’rith doesn’t condone or countenance his actions,” Baer said. “We recognize that what he did was a serious crime. But the issue is whether he’s paid his debt to society, and we believe he has.”
Pollard, he said, expressed “clear remorse. He said that the act he undertook was because he could not understand why the United States was withholding information vital to the security needs of Israel, a strategic ally. It didn’t make sense to him, so he shared certain information but withheld other information.”
But Pollard, who has been imprisoned since his arrest in 1986 on espionage charges, told him that he was not seeking exoneration or trying to justify his actions, Baer said.
Congressional sources say it’s unlikely there will be any public groundswell of support for Pollard’s release on Capitol Hill.
Instead, supporters of commutation hope that quiet lobbying may reduce the administration’s fears of political repercussions if they release Pollard despite vehement opposition from the defense and intelligence communities.
Administration insiders say that commutation still depends on two factors: whether or not Pollard is seen as clearly and unequivocally repentant, without any attempt to justify his spying — and whether Jewish support for commutation reaches a political critical mass.
“So far, the president and his advisers haven’t been convinced that Pollard’s release is actively supported by their primary Jewish constituency,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “The more Jewish groups that weigh in, the closer we get to that point.”
School Prayer Amendment Rolling
According to Capitol Hill scuttlebutt, the Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution — the Istook Amendment, named after chief sponsor Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.) — may be ready to jump to the fast track.
Last week, the amendment, which would legalize prayer and other forms of religious observance in public schools and open the door to public funding of religious institutions, handily cleared the House Judiciary Committee.
Now, there are indications that the measure could come to the House floor as early as next week. Christian groups like the American Family Association and the Christian Coalition have been pushing for a quick vote, and it looks like they may get their wish.
But Jewish groups that have made opposition to the amendment a top priority aren’t too worried.
“There seems to be some energy behind the amendment for the first time,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “But I’m confident they don’t have the votes to pass it in the House. And there’s no indication yet of when it could be brought up in the Senate.”
Jewish groups and several major Christian organizations that oppose Istook continue to pursue a two-pronged strategy, arguing that the amendment is unnecessary because private religious observances like grace before meals are already legal — and the broadly worded measure is dangerous because it would open the floodgates to a variety of coercive religious practices.
Technion Leader Speaks
So what about some good news concerning Israel and the Middle East for a change? Professor Zehev Tadmor, the president of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, stood before the National Press Club last week and offered some, albeit with warnings that it might not last if the Mideast peace process continues to skid.
“My message is basically how Israel is thriving, and how high-tech is playing a critical role,” he said in an interview. “Thirty years ago, we were exporting oranges; today we’re exporting a variety of high-tech products.”
Israel, he said, was ideally positioned to leap on the high-tech bandwagon.
“First, you need good basic science, which Israel has had all along,” he said. You need a good capability in technology, which we developed out of necessity — because of the embargo on military technology.”
And, he said, the huge influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union created a high-tech critical mass.
“That doubled the number of engineers and scientists in Israel in five years,” he said. “So we had the human resources component.”
And, Tadmor said, Israel “has the entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit, which is as important in Israel as it is in the United States.”