Aid Request In The Works
During his visit to Washington last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon achieved one of his top goals: getting a ringing vote of confidence for the Israeli economy from President George W. Bush.
But that is unlikely to translate into broad political support for a big new aid request that could be in the works.
Bush raised the issue of Israel’s current economic difficulties during a short session with reporters, saying that “terror has affected our economy; terror has affected the Israeli economy. But we’ve got great confidence in the Israeli economy.”
Presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer issued a statement lauding Israel’s economy and expressing “confidence in its long-term potential.” Fleischer also said that Israel has become America’s “20th largest goods trading partner in the world and the
biggest market for U.S. exports in the Middle East.”
All of that was seen as a carefully orchestrated attempt to boost the sagging Israeli economy, in response to the Sharon government’s pleas.
“What the president said was important,” said an Israeli diplomat here. “When you talk about international [economic] ratings, a lot of it is based on intangibles. When the president expresses confidence in the Israeli economy, that’s important. It has an impact on ratings and markets.”
But getting more tangible U.S. help may be more difficult, despite the Bush administration’s receptivity.
Israeli newspapers reported this week that officials in Jerusalem were considering asking for a new package of U.S. aid and loan guarantees to help meet the soaring costs of fighting terror and preparing for a possible Iraqi attack.
Some reports leaked in Jerusalem suggest the Israelis will come to Washington with a proposal for a package totaling $10 billion, most of which would be in the form of loan guarantees, although experienced pro-Israel hands say a final proposal is likely to be for significantly less.
Israel now receives $2.7 billion annually in economic and military aid, with the economic aid being reduced every year as part of an earlier agreement between the two countries.
But even modest increases in aid are proving excruciatingly difficult to get in today’s stressed-out budget climate. And the purse strings are only going to get tighter as the federal deficit soars and domestic programs face painful cuts.
Earlier in the year, Congress passed an extra $200 million for Israel as part of a terrorism supplemental appropriation, but it was yanked by the president, who claimed lawmakers were overspending. The money was added to another spending bill, but Congress left town without completing action on that and most other critical appropriations bills.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington downplayed reports that a new aid request was in the works.
“Nothing has been raised with the Americans; no direct request has been made,” the spokesman said.
But Sharon did discuss Israel’s positive record with past loan guarantees during a meeting with Senate leaders last week, according to Capitol Hill sources.
Jewish leaders here responded cautiously to reports of a new aid request.
“We’re at the very beginning of a process,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “Under certain circumstances the aid may be possible, but it will take a fair amount of work.”
Israeli officials say there is no connection between the new aid effort and U.S. pressure on Israel to stay out of any U.S.-Iraq war. But pro-Israel activists here say strings are inevitable when new aid is in the works.
“There’s always the issue of leverage,” said a top Jewish leader here. “If Israel chooses to talk about new aid at this time, when the administration is very much interested in affecting how Israel responds to any Iraqi attack and in getting some humanitarian concessions for the Palestinians, it puts itself in a position of allowing that leverage to be used.”
Robert Freedman, a top Mideast analyst, was blunter, arguing that the administration may dangle the possibility of a big aid and loan guarantee package as a juicy incentive for Israel to stay out of the war.
“The deal is, you keep quiet even if Iraq attacks, and we’ll give you more aid,” said Freedman, a professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University. “And if that’s the deal, I’m not sure it’s wise.”
Freedman said Israel’s decision not to retaliate for Iraqi missile attacks in 1991 was a mistake because “it hurt their deterrent power. And it would be a mistake this time.”
He said that the prospect of new U.S. aid may also serve as leverage to win Israel’s support for the new U.S. “road map” for creation of a Palestinian state.
The new plan, presented to Sharon during last week’s visit, includes an international peace conference a year from now, followed by the provisional establishment of a Palestinian state. The plan also envisions new Israeli actions to relieve the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians. But talks on the most difficult issues, including Jerusalem, refugees and final boundaries, will be put off until at least 2005.
The new plan, officially a proposal of the Mideast “Quartet,” was the top item on the agenda of Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, whose latest peace mission to the region was greeted by Monday’s deadly bus bombing in northern Israel.
Freedman said the new administration plan has some “very good ideas, such as stopping settlements.” But the plan also contains some gaping holes, he said.
“It doesn’t call for the Palestinians to immediately close down Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” he said. “It just calls for them to do what they can to end violence and incitement. With the current Israeli government, that proposal will go nowhere.”
And while calling for Palestinian “reform,” it does not demand a change in leadership.
“Until Arafat and his entourage are removed as heads of the Palestinian movement, you’re not going to get any serious progress in the region,” Freedman said.
Odd Calls In Congress
A Texas lawmaker who has not been exactly sympathetic to Jewish interests has come to the defense of Jews in the case of New Jersey’s controversial poet laureate, who wrote a poem suggesting that Jews knew in advance of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
And across the partisan divide, a defeated Georgia lawmaker who offered her own conspiracy theory about those terror attacks is now coming to the aid of its victims.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is known mostly for legislation to get the United States out of the United Nations and abolish the Federal Reserve Bank, and for his claim that foreign aid is unconstitutional. His lonely opposition to resolutions condemning terrorism in Israel and commending Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 has not endeared him to Jewish groups. But last week Paul seemed to leap to the defense of the Jewish community.
The obstetrician-turned-congressman wrote to House appropriators urging them to deny federal funding to Amiri Baraka, the controversial poet laureate of New Jersey whose work, Paul said, is “blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jews for a variety of the world’s problems and accusing Israel of having foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I don’t want taxpayers funding such offensive and divisive material.”
Paul said that Baraka, author of the controversial “Somebody Blew Up America,” has received federal money through the National Endowment for the Arts.
But the real object of Paul’s attack may be the NEA, an agency that leads Paul’s lengthy list of federal departments he wants to abolish.
“I am proud that I have taken a strong stance in abolishing the NEA, and my complete opposition to the Department of Education, the BATF [Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms], the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and the Department of Labor are very well-known,” said Paul in announcing a survey showing that most of his constituents want the agency eliminated.
Across the partisan aisle, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) is going to bat for victims of last year’s terror attacks in Washington and New York. McKinney has introduced a bill to allow suits against foreign states or individuals for “damages arising from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, regardless of whether a claim has been filed under the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund of 2001.”
What makes that interesting is McKinney’s controversial charge last year that the Bush administration had advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks but refused to act on it. That accusation was a factor in McKinney’s defeat in a bruising primary battle.
The McKinney legislation will be taken up when the new Congress convenes in January. McKinney supporters have filed suit to have the August primary overturned on the grounds that too many Republicans crossed over to vote for her opponent, Denise Majette.
Lessons from the ADL
Looking for a glimmer of hope in a month full of war, murder and economic angst? Then consider next week’s Anti-Defamation League National Youth Leadership Mission in Washington.
The annual event will bring some 100 mostly inner-city kids to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for a chance to talk about tolerance, hate and the experiences different minority groups share.
This year’s three-day program includes children from nine cities. In addition to museum officials, participants will meet with ADL officials, leaders of prominent civil rights groups, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page and representatives of the Japanese embassy here.
The object of the exercise: to show how the lessons of the Holocaust apply to today’s world, and to “offer modern-day examples and role models for standing against bigotry,” according to an ADL statement.
The 5-year-old program also includes followup events in the communities of the participants.
“More than anything else, this mission teaches young people how hatred, when left unchecked, can spread and be accepted by society,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director