WASHINGTON (Sep. 8)
Israel and its U.S. supporters are pressing ahead with what looks to be a tough battle to win speedy congressional approval of U.S. guarantees for $10 billion in loans needed for immigrant resettlement, despite a strong plea from President Bush that action on the request be delayed until January.
Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval formally presented Israel’s request for the loan guarantees to Secretary of State James Baker on Friday afternoon, only hours after Bush urged Congress to delay its consideration for 120 days.
“We have very serious economic problems,” Shoval was quoted as saying as he left the State Department. “And it’s no secret we need that money quite urgently.”
Israel is seeking loans of $2 billion a year for five years from private banks to help absorb up to 1 million Soviet Jews expected to arrive there in the next few years. The U.S. guarantees would allow Israel to obtain the loans for a longer period and at lower interest rates.
“We’re interested in absorption aid,” Bush told reporters who he had called into the Oval Office during a meeting Friday with Baker. “We take pride in the fact we’ve taken the leadership role” in helping Jews leave the Soviet Union.
“But it is in the best interest of the peace process and of peace itself that consideration of this absorption aid question for Israel be deferred for simply 120 days,” the president said.
AVOIDING ‘ALL SORTS OF QUESTIONS’
Pointing out that Baker is going to the Middle East this week to work out arrangements for a regional peace conference, Bush stressed, “This is not the time for a debate which can be misunderstood, a debate that can divide.”
“Give peace a chance,” the president said.
Baker had called for a delay at a news conference two days before, but he did not give a specific time period as did Bush.
While Bush was not specific about how congressional debate over the loan guarantees would result in acrimony, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler asserted Friday that the discussion could raise “all sorts of questions on how and where this money is going to be used.
“Issues related to the occupied territories are bound to be raised,” she said. “We are seeking to avoid that linkage.”
But observers here said that by asking Congress for the delay, Bush had, in fact, ensured the acrimonious debate he had sought to avoid.
They pointed out that he could have held the money up for 120 days by citing technical reasons, as he did last year, when he held up U.S. guarantees for a $400 million loan to Israel for some nine months.
Observers wondered why Bush sought the delay now, after he had received an agreement from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir last February to postpone the request until after Labor Day.
Bush said Friday that Baker had asked the Israelis to delay their request, in “two very friendly conversations” by telephone with Shamir.
The Israeli premier balked, and now the issue is expected to be high on the agenda when Baker arrives in Israel on Sept. 16.
But the American Jewish community is not waiting till then to press its case on Capitol Hill.
On Friday, the board of directors of the Council of Jewish Federations unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Congress to “act now” to approve the Israeli request.
And the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council are going ahead with plans to bring hundreds of Jewish leaders from across the country to Washington on Thursday to lobby individual senators and representatives for immediate approval of the loan guarantees.
“We see no reason to change,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents.
But the Jewish community appears to have an uphill fight.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriation subcommittee on foreign operations, has agreed on the need for a delay. The subcommittee was scheduled to deal with the request for the guarantees as part of the foreign aid bill.
Pro-Israel strategists on Capitol Hill are now looking at other “legislative vehicles” to introduce the loan guarantees package.
MANY MEMBERS OF CONGRESS SUPPORTIVE
While it is still uncertain how much congressional support there is for Bush’s request, a number of members of Congress have already weighed in against it.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) fired off a letter to Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) urging that the Israeli request be considered “this month on its own merits.”
“Israel is shouldering staggering resettlement costs and has raised taxes to try to cope with them,” he said. “More must be done, however, and these loan guarantees will make the greater effort possible, without any cost to U.S. taxpayers.”
Pointing to the planned peace conference, Levin argued that “it is not wise to put unwarranted pressure on one of the parties to adopt specific policies before direct peace talks have even begun.”
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) also warned against linking the guarantees to the peace process. “There is an immediate humanitarian need, which should be met immediately,” he said.
Bush warned Friday that he will make his position “as clear as I can to every single member of Congress and the American people.”
Observers here recalled that Congress was ready to reject the Reagan administration’s sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 until the president made a personal appeal. They said it would be difficult to deny such a public plea from Bush.
But pro-Israel strategists pointed out that support for the loan guarantees in the American Jewish community and in Congress is much greater than was the opposition to the AWACS sale.