Pro-israel Lawmakers Are Divided over Best Approach on Guarantees

With time running out, pro-Israel members of Congress are divided over how to win approval for U.S. guarantees that would enable Israel to borrow $10 billion over the next five years for immigrant resettlement.

The Bush administration wants Congress to approve the guarantees now and allow President Bush to work out the conditions under which they would be issued later.

Those conditions would likely include a freeze on Israeli settlement building in the administered territories and some sort of deduction for money spent on completing construction projects already begun.

Some pro-Israel lawmakers are willing to give bush the discretion to work out the conditions, in the interest of getting the loan guarantees approved. But they want assurances that the administration will not delay issuing the guarantees indefinitely.

Others want to challenge the Bush administration’s attempt to link the guarantees to the issue of Israeli settlements. They favor approving the guarantees with no strings attached, even if it means a White House veto, which they would try to override.

But unless the Senate acts quickly on one of these proposals, Israel is not likely to see any loan money until after the U.S. elections in November, and possibly not until spring 1993.

That is because the loan guarantees would be included in a foreign aid bill covering the second half of the 1992 fiscal year, which begins April 1. If Congress does not come up with a new bill by March 31, it will likely approve a resolution continuing the current level of funding for the next six months.

Because foreign aid is not popular with voters, Congress will likely go with another continuing resolution when the six months are up at the end of September, little more than a month before the elections.

‘A LONG WAYS APART’

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the powerful Senate subcommittee that deals with foreign appropriations, has postponed all action on the foreign aid bill until the Bush administration can work out a deal on the loan guarantees that is satisfactory to members of his panel.

Leahy met Monday with Secretary of State James Baker, in an attempt to work out a compromise. He told reporters after the meeting that the two sides were still “a long ways apart.”

He met again with Baker on Tuesday and would not comment afterward other than to say that he saw “no reason to believe” his subcommittee should begin taking action on the foreign aid bill.

The senator also stuck by his statement that during the Monday meeting Baker had proposed deducting the amount of money Israel spends on settlements from the $3 billion it receives each year in U.S. foreign aid.

The State Department did not deny that Baker floated that idea. But it referred reporters to previous statements in which the secretary suggested that such deductions come out of the total amount of loans the United States would guarantee, rather than out of Israel’s annual foreign aid package.

Pro-Israel sources suggested that Baker may have floated the idea as a warning to Israel but is not seriously proposing it at this time.

Leahy was joined at the meeting Tuesday by Sen. Robert Kasten of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. Kasten is among the pro-Israel senators who have not ruled out trying to push through a bill he introduced that would provide the loan guarantees to Israel unconditionally.

The White House has made clear that it would veto such a bill. And observers say that, given the politics of the recession and the election year, it would be extremely difficult to muster the two-thirds vote necessary in both the Senate and House of Representatives to override a veto.

Moreover, many of Israel’s supporters in Congress feel there would be little gain in an all-out fight with the administration at this point.

MAY HAVE TO WAGE A FIGHT

House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Tuesday that such a unilateral action by Congress would “just tear apart” many lawmakers.

“If you look at the data for the country at large, it’s not a fight we would want to get into,” Gingrich told a Zionist Organization of America gathering here.

But Gingrich said he is “also trying to convince the president that in fact the wisest, most humanitarian and the most decent position is to find a way to walk through this minefield and get to the guarantees and help the human beings, who for 20 years we tried to encourage to leave the Soviet Union.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) agreed that “the best way to work it out, if we can, is to get to an agreement” between Congress and the administration on the loan guarantees.

But Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) said that if there is “any possibility” of Congress pushing through an unrestricted loan package by overriding a Bush veto, “then I think we should make that effort.”

Nevertheless, he conceded it would be a “Herculean achievement to muster the two-thirds necessary in order to override a presidential veto, which is why I think it is important to do everything we can to soften up the administration on this issue, to induce them to make the kind of reasonable concessions which will facilitate an agreement between Israel and the administration on this issue.”

He called on U.S. Jews to “bring pressure to bear” on the administration to “compromise with Israel. If we can achieve that, I think we’re a long way toward the achievement of our ultimate objective.

“And if we can’t, if the administration remains intransigent, then I say to you, from a humanitarian point of view, we have no alternative but to wage the fight anyway.”

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