Pro-Israel groups are playing a cautious game of wait-and-see in response to last week’s dramatic developments in the battle over sanctions on Russian companies that contribute to Iran’s missile development program
Thu, 07/23/1998 - 20:00
At the same time, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced his government would investigate the companies for possible violations of anti-proliferation rules promulgated after strong pressure from Washington, but enforced with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. The Clinton administration argued that sanctions would undercut diplomatic efforts on proliferation issues and further undermine Russia’s tottering economy. But Congress wasn’t in a buying mood; in recent days, it became clear a veto was all but inevitable, and the administration’s action was widely seen as an attempt to avoid an embarrassing defeat. In the wake of the new developments, the House postponed its override vote. But the delay may not be a long one. Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), chair of the House International Relations Committee, reacted to the 11th-hour sanctions with contempt, and hinted of a quick vote. “It is regrettable that the administration acted only in the face of congressional pressure, in what appears to be a cynical effort to head off an override of the president’s veto,” he said. But Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said, “it’s incredibly good news that we’re finally seeing some enforcement of the sanctions.” Cardin predicted there would be no veto override vote until at least September — after the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in Moscow, adding that “if it starts to unravel, the issue will come back sooner. We have to see some progress on a day-to-day basis.” Jewish groups tried to keep their eye on the ultimate goal — limiting Iran’s weapons programs — and their heads clear of the partisan fray. Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman called the administration decision “bold and courageous,” and at the same time commended Congress for pressing the issue. Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the prime force behind the sanctions bill, called the Russian decision “unprecedented,” and a “very significant breakthrough.” But he cautioned that the override effort has been suspended, not terminated. “It’s all related to events on the ground,” he said. “Will the Russians be serious about these investigations? And will the administration be serious about implementing the executive order? If there isn’t serious progress, then it’s conceivable the issue of an override could come back quickly.” Israel Wins On Aid Despite growing friction between Washington and the Netanyahu government, Israel’s formula for easing the pain of a cut in U.S. assistance has cleared its most important legislative hurdle. Egypt wasn’t so lucky. Despite last-minute lobbying, the Egyptians were not allowed to convert cuts in economic aid into increases in military assistance, although they got a consolation prize: a smaller cut in economic aid. After the administration made it clear it expected both countries to take a substantial cut, Israeli Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman negotiated a formula intended to reduce the economic impact of the reductions. Last week, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations accepted most of the Israeli package, which involves a $120 million cut in economic aid every year for 10 years, with about half that amount getting shifted to military aid. Israel will also be allowed to use more of its military aid to buy from Israeli suppliers. Egypt was initially reluctant to accept a “voluntary” aid cut, but U.S. diplomats signaled that they had no choice. Cairo then tried to get the same deal as Israel. The committee seemed ready to agree, but the idea was nixed in an amendment by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) and Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R- Mich), who introduced an amendment reducing the size of the economic aid cut, but barring an increase in military aid. Officially, the rationale was that Egypt needs economic aid more than military aid, the reverse of Israel’s situation. Unofficially, congressional sources said there was widespread unease about giving more military aid to the unstable Egyptian government, which has played a less-than-helpful role in Mideast peace talks. The measure was expected to go to the full appropriations committee this week, but pro-Israel lobbyists say there’s little likelihood it will be changed. The Senate will start working on its aid bill soon; final passage isn’t expected until September. Discrimination In Confirmation Battle? A growing number of Jewish groups are weighing in on the stalled nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxumberg — a stall that many see as one of the most blatant cases ever of congressional discrimination. Hormel, a San Francisco lawyer and philanthropist, is being blocked by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Senate majority leader. The reason? Hormel is a homosexual and an outspoken defender of the gay rights movement. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the nomination by a 16-to-2 vote, and more than 60 senators have indicated they would vote for Hormel. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a leading conservative, has circulated a letter urging his colleagues not to discriminate. In June, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) wrote to Lott, urging him to schedule an up or down vote on the nomination, and expressing concern that the only reason for the holdup is Hormel’s sexual orientation. But lawmakers may not get the chance to vote. Lott, whose outspoken statements on homosexuality have coincided with a major public campaign by Christian right groups against what they call the “homosexual agenda,” has indicated he will keep the nomination from coming to the Senate floor. That’s undemocratic, says the American Jewish Congress. “Even many moderate Republicans aren’t supporting Lott because this is an incredibly blatant case of discrimination,” said David Harris, Washington representative for the AJ Congress. “There’s been a real reaction to what Lott is doing, but he’s getting strong support from the extreme right.” The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have written in support of the nomination, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations is working on an interreligious letter to the Senate leadership that will include Christian and Jewish signers. This week Lott said that the press of a number of pending appropriations bills will probably keep the Senate from considering the nomination this year. ORT In D.C. Some 650 members of Women’s American ORT were in Washington last week for the group’s first triennial convention, which featured appearances by several administration headliners. At the top of the list: Madeleine M. Kunin, who served as governor of Vermont from 1984 to 1991 and now is on the hot seat as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. Kunin, a Jewish woman who was born in Zurich, told the group that the burgeoning Holocaust assets controversy has “rocked our relationship, but far from wrecked it. Fundamentally, Switzerland and the United States are good friends, stronger trading partners than ever and eager tourists in one another’s countries.” Kunin said that while she has played a role in the diplomatic wrestling match, her main role is to keep relations on an even keel. “My job is to maintain a solid bilateral relationship, while simultaneously encouraging, and to some extent prodding the Swiss to move forward in the process which they have started,” she said. She echoed the administration view that state boycotts against Switzerland and lawsuits by survivors will complicate the overall U.S. effort. “We will get faster action on behalf of the Holocaust survivors with praise and encouragement instead of confrontation,” she said. Also on the dais: Martin Indyk, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who offered an angst-filled assessment of the dangers if Israeli-Palestinian talks unravel. On Monday, ORT delegates donated 200 children’s books to a District of Columbia school library as part of the group’s Love Reading literacy program; attendees were asked to bring books to donate. An additional 100 books will go to the ORT program in New York. The convention also featured a reunion of ORT alumni from around the world. Rudy, Bus Ads and Agudah Will the Supreme Court hear a case involving suggestive advertising on New York City buses? It will if Agudath Israel of America’s “cert petition” has any impact. The case began when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took exception to bus ads purchased by New York magazine that lampooned the mayor by saying that the magazine is “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.” Giuliani told the bus bosses to dump the ads because he had not given permission for his name to be used. They did, and the magazine sued, claiming the transit authority action violated First Amendment protections. The magazine won, the city appealed and an appellate court expanded the ruling, saying that the MTA would have to show a compelling interest in censoring ads — and that the city would have to institute legal proceedings before doing so. Recently, the city decided to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, and Agudath Israel filed a petition supporting that request. Why is the Orthodox group involved? Last year, Agudah, concerned about increasingly suggestive advertising on New York buses and subways, worked with the MTA to promulgate new guidelines for ads. “Part of the guidelines prohibited images or information that would be deemed offensive by a significant proportion of the public or that would be a negative influence on minors,” said Abba Cohen, the group’s Washington representative. But if the lower court rulings stand, Cohen said, the city would have to go through complex legal proceedings before trying to screen out sexually explicit or violent ads, as well as ads poking fun at city bigshots. “We are concerned about what the city might do then,” he said. “Instead of going through these procedures every time someone tries to place an ad, they may just adopt a policy of anything goes.” The lower court rulings, he said, would set the bar for prohibiting ads so high that the city might not fight any but the most egregious types of subway smut. The court is expected to decide whether to hear the case sometime in the fall.