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Jewish Leaders Tell White House They Will Not Force Vote on Loans

Jewish organizational leaders have told White House Chief of Staff Samuel Skinner that they will not force a vote in Congress to secure $10 billion in U.S. guaranteed loans for Israel.

Instead of trying to bypass the Bush administration, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told the new chief of staff Monday it wants the administration to work out quickly with Israel, any assurances it would want, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive director.

The U.S. guarantees would help Israel obtain loans from commercial banks here, which would be used to build housing and infrastructure for hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews expected to arrive in Israel over the next five years.

But the Bush administration fears the loan money would free up Israeli funds to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it believes is an obstacle to peace.

In September, President Bush balked at an Israeli request for the loan guarantees, while saying he would help Israel absorb the emigres.

Expressing concern that any quick approval of the guarantees might imperil the face-to-face talks between Arab and Israelis, Bush promised instead to revisit the matter in 120 days, a period that expires this month.

Bush had vowed to take his case to the American people if forced to fight the loan guarantees, and many congressional supporters relented on an early vote, in light of Bush’s veto threat.

Despite widespread congressional sentiment in favor of the guarantees, Jewish leaders have apparently decided to forgo any fight with the administration.

CONCERN ABOUT ‘ISOLATIONIST’ MOOD

Hoenlein said he discussed with Skinner the perception that there is a growing “isolationist” movement in the United States that opposes foreign aid. He said the Conference of Presidents vowed to work with the administration to help shepherd foreign aid through Congress.

But Hoenlein said his group would refrain from negotiating on Israel’s behalf on any of the assurances the United States might seek on use of the loan money.

Before releasing guarantees for $400 million in loans last year, Bush secured assurances from Israel that it would not use the aid to increase settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Hoenlein said Skinner was the one who called for the meeting and that the chief of staff said it was his first with any constituent group since replacing John Sununu last month.

The group also met separately with Dennis Ross, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and Richard Haass, senior director on the National Security Council for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.

Joining Hoenlein in the meetings were Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents; Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America; Alfred Moses, president of the American Jewish Committee; Melvin Salberg, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League; and Kent Schiner, president of B’nai B’rith International.

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