Behind the Headlines American Jews Begin Massive Drive to Lobby U.S. for Loan Guarantees

American Jews, from the smallest communities to the large cities, arc preparing a massive campaign to convince the Bush administration and Congress to provide Israel with U.S. guarantees for $10 billion in loans, which would be used for the absorption of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.

An official Israeli request for the guarantees, which would be made in $2 billion chunks over the next five years, is not expected before September.

But the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have already begun coordinating lobbying efforts.

And the Council of Jewish Federations, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and rabbinical organizations have also started mobilizing their efforts.

“This is a real cooperative effort, in which every organization is playing a role,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents.

And it will not be just a Jewish effort, he said, since rabbis and organizations that have relations with Christian groups will be seeking their support.

“The commitment of the community to assist Israel in absorbing over a million of our Jewish brothers and sisters from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union is an inspiring endeavor,” said Thomas Dine, AIPAC’s executive director.

“It will strengthen Israel spiritually and economically, as well as advance America’s interests,” he said.

UNIVERSAL SUPPORT’ AMONG JEWS

Dine compared the “all-out campaign” being launched to the ultimately unsuccessful 1981 battle against the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, “but without venom.”

Hoenlein said there is “universal support” for the lobbying campaign in the American Jewish community. “Everyone agrees with the priority of the issue,” he said.

Mark Talisman, director of the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations, said the ingathering of Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia in Israel is like “writing a new chapter of the Bible.”

He said leaders of the federations are eager to become involved.

The federations have already taken their own action by guaranteeing up to $750 million in loans to help pay for the first year of absorption for Soviet immigrants, Talisman pointed out.

Israel will borrow this money from Israeli banks. The U.S. guarantees will be for loans Israel will seek from U.S. and European banks.

“This is the best example of federal-private partnership that could exist,” Talisman said.

The major effort until Congress returns from its summer recess Sept. 10 will be educating the Jewish community itself about the issue.

The next two to there months will be used to explain to the Jewish community exactly what a loan guarantee is, said Kenneth Bandler, director of public information for NJCRAC.

He said there is a misconception that has existed since the United States guaranteed $450 million in loans for housing Soviet Jewish immigrants earlier this year.

Many people, including Jews, believed that the guarantees are outright foreign aid, Bandler said.

CONCERN ABOUT LINKAGE TO POLITICS

Actually, the United States is being asked to play a role similar to that of a co-signer on an individual loan. Israel will pay both the principal and interest on the loan. Officials note that Israel has never defaulted on a financial commitment. The actual cost to the United Stares will be for bookkeeping, an amount estimated at $40 million to $140 million for the five-year period.

With the U.S. guarantees, Israel would be able to get 30-year loans rather than the seven-year term it would have to accept on its own This will not only save Israel money on interest but will allow it to pay back the funds at a time when its economy is expanding, as it is expected to do because of the influx of immigrants.

The one problem strategists may have difficulty overcoming is any attempt by the administration to link the loans to the Middle East peace process.

President Bush held up the $450 million loan guarantee finally released this spring for nearly a year until Israel provided in writing assurances that the money would not be used for housing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even then, he did not appear to be fully satisfied.

“Our view is that separate and distinct loan guarantees for Ethiopian and Soviet olim should not be connected to political developments,” said Bandler of NJCRAC.

“We believe this should be dealt with as a humanitarian issue and not tied to others,” said Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents.

He said that when a delegation of Jewish leaders met with Secretary of State James Baker last Thursday, Baker told them the loan guarantees should not be linked to the peace process.

But when leaders of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America met with Bush two weeks ago, the president hinted that Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could complicate approval of the guarantees.

LOBBYING AND LETTER-WRITING

Bush has long called the settlements an obstacle to peace. But leaders of the Orthodox Union said he did not explicitly condition approval of the guarantees or expanding settlements.

Meanwhile, the campaign to support the loan guarantees is moving ahead. Many rabbis spoke about it to their congregations on Shavuot. The issue was discussed by the Orthodox Union at a recent meeting of its Institute for Public Affairs here. Other organizations having conferences over the summer will also highlight the issue.

A letter-writing campaign to members of Congress has already started. After Congress returns in September, many organizations will bring their members to Washington to personally lobby Congress.

NJCRAC’S executive committee met in Chicago last week and announced plans to have a fly-in from the umbrella group’s national and local member organizations as part of this effort.

This campaign will demonstrate how American Jewry “function as a community, with each element utilizing its strength,” Hoenlein said.

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