New Israel Aid May Be Hard Sell

A parade of Israel officials has started lobbying Washington for new U.S. aid as compensation for the military redeployments mandated by last month’s Wye River agreement

11/27/98
Washington Correspondent
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New Israel Aid May Be Hard Sell A parade of Israel officials has started lobbying Washington for new U.S. aid as compensation for the military redeployments mandated by last month’s Wye River agreement. But the high-dollar package could be a hard sell in Congress, where the new Republican leadership has vowed to make big tax cuts, not foreign policy, their top priority. And even as Clinton administration officials seek creative ways of channeling the aid to avoid a collision with Israel over settlements, Israeli leaders fear Congress will demand much tighter restrictions on how the money can be spent. That concern may mushroom as Palestinians intensify their complaints about the construction of 12 secure highways linking remote Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel proper. Administration officials say the new aid will notgo to construction of the new roads, but they concede that any new aid will make it easier for Israel to handle the huge cost of the system to protect settlers. Israeli officials decline to reveal how much they are requesting. Reports in Jerusalem say the bill could go as high as $1.6 billion. Administration sources expect a request on the order of $1 billion to $1.2 billion. That would be in addition to the $2.9 billion in economic and military assistance Israel is due to receive this year after a voluntary cut worked out with the Clinton administration and congressional appropriators. The upcoming aid battle will test the pro-Israel mettle of incoming House Speaker Robert Livingston (R-La.), a persistent foreign aid critic, who in the past has suggested cutting Israel’s allotment and once held up Israel’s aid over the murder extradition case of Maryland teenager Samuel Sheinbein. “It’s a test not only of Livingston’s leadership as speaker, but of his sympathy on our issue,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist here. “He’s been highly critical of settlements, and he will probably want to go much further than the administration in adding provisions to make sure the new money isn’t used to expand or strengthen them. And don’t forget that Newt Gingrich was an aggressive promoter of foreign aid. Livingston has never had that as a priority.” Money for new equipment to protect borders and fight terrorism will win broad support on Capitol Hill, sources here say. Open-ended grants that could be used for a variety of purposes, including settlement expansion, will face tough going. “I believe there will be broad bipartisan support for the general outlines of this agreement,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “But issues will arise when they start talking about the details.” Hordes said that the administration will probably try to work out an agreement in three-way negotiations with Israeli and congressional officials before the new Congress convenes in January. Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman was in Washington over the weekend for preliminary meetings with administration officials. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to raise the issue in meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and congressional leaders next week. Neeman presented a laundry list of costs associated with the redeployment, including the cost of relocating military facilities, enhanced anti-terrorism measures and security for settlements surrounded by Palestinian Authority territory. “The meetings went well,” said an Israeli official, “but everybody is concerned about how to get the money through Congress. There’s a big question about the new congressional leadership, and emergency spending bills are never popular.” Administration officials, eager to speed passage of the still-incomplete aid package, hope to avoid a messy confrontation over settlements. “The administration has a big dilemma,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “They want to comply with their own policy of not providing money for settlements — and yet there’s an interim agreement in place that commits us to help lubricate things with new aid. The best [the administration] can do is acknowledge that money is fungible, and simply state that new U.S. funding should not be used for settlements.” Israeli officials agree: Washington is likely to make stern noises about not using the money for settlements and the new bypass roads, but they will seek to work quietly with the Israelis and wink at the fungibility issue. Administration officials won’t finalize their plans for the new aid package until mid to late December, sources here say. Palestinian Aid: Corruption’s The Problem Palestinian officials, including PLO leader Yasir Arafat, are due in Washington next week, looking for a modest aid boost. But new Palestinian aid, even linked to an Israeli package, could be a hard sell in Congress. Critics of Oslo and Wye say they will lobby Congress to attach strict conditions to any new Palestinian aid. Even supporters say corruption in the Palestinian authority makes it unlikely Arafat will get all he wants — reportedly as much as $300 million, up from the current $75 million. This week, administration officials were conferring with congressional leaders, hoping to smooth the way for more U.S. money. Again, incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston’s response to the impending administration request will be critical — as will the position of Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), chair of the House International Relations Committee. In the past, Gilman single-handedly blocked parts of the Palestinian aid package. “The Palestinian economy is in very bad shape, and the need for assistance is dire,” said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But there’s a lot of corruption, and that will be a big issue for Congress.” The Palestinians also hope to get a boost from Monday’s international donors conference in Washington aimed at stimulating private investment in Gaza and the West Bank. But corruption in Palestinian controlled areas will be a factor in those discussions as well, Kipper said. About 12 nations agreed to participate, including Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman —far fewer than the 50 invited by the State Department. A 1993 donors conference in Washington raised about $4 billion in pledges. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon will attend the conference. Israel has signaled it will participate in the effort to boost the Palestinian economy. OU Opening Shop In D.C. After several years of testing the waters and marshalling internal support for the move, the Orthodox Union is ready to open a permanent Washington office. The announcement will be made at the group’s biennial convention this week in East Brunswick, N.J. — an event marking the OU’s centennial. The OU office, opening in early January to coincide with the arrival of the 106th Congress, will be headed by Nathan Diament, the current director of the group’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We hope to take the most effective methods that other groups utilize in Washington, but we will approach the issues with our traditional rootedness in halacha and the interests of the Orthodox community,” Diament said. But the group will not only focus on matters of Orthodox self-interest, he said. “The OU is unique in that we are committed to a healthy involvement on a range of domestic issues and in Israel-related issues,” Diament said. “But that involvement in both areas is informed by what we understand to be traditional Jewish teachings. We definitely have a philosophy of engaging with the society around.” The new OU office will leave only the Conservative movement without a fulltime Washington office — a deficiency the Rabbinical Assembly, the central group of Conservative rabbis, hopes to change in the next year or two. Bush Tips His Hand The pundits are still not sure if Texas Gov. George W. Bush is serious about running for the 2000 Republican nomination. They should check out his travel schedule, the best tip-off that the recently reelected governor is planning a run for the Oval Office. Bush and his wife, along with two fellow GOP governors, are traveling to Israel this week at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who issued the invitation last month. High-level trips to Israel are the first step in winning Jewish bona-fides, something that will come in handy if Bush — who is reportedly ambivalent about the demands of a presidential campaign but encouraged by his easy reelection on Nov. 3 — takes the plunge. The trip, scheduled to begin on Thursday, is being sponsored by the Republican Governors Association and the National Jewish Coalition, a group of Jewish Republicans. No doubt Bush will take lots of snapshots to share with pro-Israel contributors if he decides to go for the job once held by his father. Another leading GOP contender, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, was in Israel just before the recent Wye River negotiations. Forbes used the opportunity to urge his hosts to stand up to “outside forces” seeking Israeli concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians. In case anybody was listening, Forbes was referring to the Clinton administration.

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