Bush Trying to Ease Confrontation with U.S. Jewry over Loan Guarantees

Without yielding any ground, President Bush appears to be trying to ease a bitter clash with Congress and the American Jewish community over Israel’s request for guarantees covering $10 billion in commercial loans for immigrant absorption.

The organized Jewish community also does not want any confrontation with the president, knowing that even if it can outmaneuver the White House in the short term, it will lose in the long run.

But many community leaders and ordinary Jews have been affronted by some of the harsh language Bush has used in recent days, especially his remark last week, as more than 1,000 Jews from across the country were lobbying Congress for the guarantees, that he was “up against some powerful forces.”

Concern about such remarks was voiced in a letter sent to the president last Friday by Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Bush responded, in a letter sent to Cardin on Tuesday, that his remarks were not meant to be pejorative.

“As a veteran of many years in the governmental. and political arena, I have great respect for the exercise of free expression in the democratic process,” the president wrote.

“Politically organized groups and individuals are a legitimate and valued part of the decision-making process in a democracy.”

Bush said he shared with Cardin the belief “that we can have honest differences on issues. I also share your belief that we are committed to the same principles and that our areas of agreement far outweigh our areas of disagreement.”

CONGRESSIONAL EFFORT MOVES FORWARD

Nevertheless, the Jewish community will continue to press for the U.S. loan guarantees without any ties to other issues, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, said Thursday.

While expressing hope for a compromise, Hoenlein said any negotiating would have to be done between the Bush administration and Congress or between the administration and the Israeli government.

Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Robert Kasten (R-Wis.), who are sponsoring the legislation for the loan guarantees, are continuing to gather co-sponsors.

But no decision has been made yet about whether or when to introduce the legislation officially, since Congress hopes to work out a compromise with the administration in advance.

Kasten has been on the phone with the administration continually, one of his aides said.

One strategy is to gather 67 or more co-sponsors for the legislation to demonstrate to the administration that the Senate would have the two-thirds vote necessary to override a presidential veto of the bill.

The focus is on the Senate, because the House of Representatives is expected to adopt the legislation by a wide margin.

A parallel strategy is that Congress might approve the guarantees but delay implementation for the 120 days demanded by Bush.

Other courses are being considered, but nothing is expected to happen until Secretary of State James Baker returns from his current visit to the Middle East.

EXPLICIT LINK TO SETTLEMENTS?

Baker caused a furor Tuesday when reporters aboard his plane from Israel to Egypt quoted a senior administration official as saying that Israel would not receive the guarantees unless they were accompanied by a freeze on Jewish settlements in the administered territories.

The official, who it was learned was Baker himself, also threatened that if Israel rejected the 120-day delay, the United States would insist on severe restrictions on the settlements.

Bush, while repeatedly calling settlements an obstacle to peace, had continuously said that his call for a delay had nothing to do with the settlements. Rather, he said the delay was needed to prevent a divisive debate that might harm the Middle East peace process.

Israel, supported by the American Jewish community, insists that the loan guarantees are a humanitarian issue needed to help settle up to 1 million Soviet Jews expected to arrive in Israel over the next five years.

The administration on Wednesday backed away from Baker’s threat, insisting that his comments were misinterpreted by reporters.

At a news conference in Damascus, Baker denied he had “discussed either publicly or privately a settlement freeze.”

But he added that whether Israel receives absorption aid or loan guarantees, “we have a right to know and a right to ask how that aid and how those guarantees would be used, and we would expect to ask how that aid would be used.”

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater appeared to try to soften the administration’s stand Wednesday. He said that the administration was committed to supporting the loan guarantees but had not decided on the amount to guarantee.

Earlier in the week, Bush had said he supported helping Israel absorb its new immigrants, but was not committed to any method of doing it.

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