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Bush Vows to Veto Loan Guarantees As Activists Converge in Washington

Israel’s battle with the Bush administration to obtain guarantees for $10 billion in immigrant resettlement loans encountered tough resistance Thursday when the president vowed to veto any legislation authorizing the guarantees at this time.

Bush made the threat at a White House news conference hastily convened after some 1,000 pro-Israel activists from across the country converged on Capitol Hill to press Congress to act swiftly on the Israeli request.

Pounding his fist on the lectern, the president repeated his request that Congress delay consideration of the loan guarantees for 120 days, in order to “avoid a contentious debate” that could torpedo his plan to hold a Middle East peace conference in October.

“We are close to being able to convene a peace conference that in turn would launch direct peace negotiation between Israel and the Arab states, something the State of Israel has sought since its inception,” Bush said.

“A 120-day delay is not too much for a president to ask with so much in the balance,” he declared. “We must give peace a chance, we must give peace every chance.”

But Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is coordinating the lobbying effort on the loan guarantees, rejected Bush’s appeal.

“While we regret the president’s position,” she said, “we will carry forward our effort with our senators and representatives because of our firm belief that prompt consideration” of the loan guarantees “is best for peace, best for the American national interest, and best for our friend and ally, Israel.”

DELAY WOULD CAUSE ‘DEEP HARDSHIP’

Observing that Bush “did not state why he thought a delay would improve the prospects for peace,” Cardin said, “It is our firm conviction that any further delay would not only cause deep hardship among the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to Israel. It could also hurt the chances of peace.”

She warned that “any delay could send a signal to the Arab side that they could achieve political gains through the exercise of American pressure against Israel rather than in the give-and-take inherent in the negotiating process.”

At his news conference, Bush denied that he was asking for a delay in response to Arab demands. He said he was merely trying to ensure that the peace conference is not jeopardized.

It was the third time in less than a week that the president had appeared before reporters to press for the 120-day delay. His reiteration of that plea at a formal news conference was an apparent attempt to neutralize the effect of 1,000 persons meeting personally with senators and representatives to press for quick enactment of the loan guarantee legislation.

Acknowledging this, Bush said, “I’m up against some powerful political forces, but I owe it to the American people to tell them how strongly I feel about deferral.”

He repeatedly stressed, as he had on the two previous occasions, his belief that “the American people will support me.”

But he conceded that he does not yet have congressional support and said he had been constantly on the phone with members of Congress urging them to agree to the delay.

‘PLAYING WITH POLITIES’

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged that Bush is “politicizing an issue that should be dealt with purely on humanitarian grounds.”

By threatening a veto, Bush is “playing politics with the peace process,” Cranston said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) accused Bush of having “created an issue where none existed.”

He said he is joining other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee in urging the “president’s continued dialogue with Congress.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said Bush “has forced Congress to choose between confrontation or caving in, and I don’t believe we are prepared to relinquish our right to vote on important policy matters.”

The 1,000 pro-Israel activists, most of them national and local Jewish leaders, were in Washington for National Leadership Action Day, sponsored by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, in consultation with the Conference of Presidents.

Before leaving for Capitol Hill, they were briefed by Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval and Thomas Dine, executive director of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

At a morning news conference, Cardin, who is also chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and Arden Shenker, NJCRAC’s chair, stressed that the American Jewish community is not seeking a confrontation with the president.

They said the Jewish community is pushing for immediate action, because the loans are needed now to meet the urgent needs of the new immigrants to Israel, who are arriving by the thousands each month.

COMPROMISE RULED OUT

Cardin ruled out a compromise effort from the American Jewish community. She said any such deal would have to be worked out in negotiations between Israel and the United States. She indicated this could happen when Secretary of State Baker arrives in Israel on Monday.

Bush also appeared to rule out any compromise. “We have worked too hard to have this request of mine denied,” he said.

Cardin and Shenker said that both Bush and Baker had previously said on many occasions that helping Jews settle in Israel should not be linked to the peace process.

“The organized American Jewish community is united in the firm conviction that Israel’s request for loan guarantees is the humanitarian issue that cannot, will not and should not be linked in any way to political developments in the region,” Shenker said.

Cardin thanked Bush for his continued support for the immigration to Israel of both Soviet and Ethiopian Jews.

Bush reminded reporters of that support during his afternoon news conference.

“As vice president and president, I have tried my hardest to do everything possible to liberate Jews living in Ethiopia and the Soviet Union so that they could emigrate to Israel,” he said.

BUSH ENUMERATES AID TO ISRAEL

The president reiterated his support for “a strong and secure Israel.” He pointed out that during the Persian Gulf War, “American men and women in uniform risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles.” He did not mention Israel’s self-restraint in agreeing not retaliate for the Iraqi attacks.

Bush also pointed out that “during the current fiscal year, despite our own economic problems, the United States provided Israel with more than $4 billion in economic and military aid, nearly a thousand dollars for every Israeli man, woman and child.”

He recalled, too, that the United States had already issued guarantees to Israel this year for $400 million in immigrant absorption loans. But he did not mention that he held up those guarantees for some nine months until he received assurances that Israel would not use the money to settle immigrants in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Cardin said she expects similar assurances will be required for the new guarantees.

The president said his request for a delay will not prejudice any congressional action in January. But he also said he has never promised to guarantee $10 billion in loans, only to provide additional assistance for the new immigrants.

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