WASHINGTON (Apr. 4)
The Clinton administration has voiced strong support for maintaining U.S. aid to Israel at its annual level of $3 billion for another year, and experts predict Congress will go along with the president this time around.
President Clinton and his foreign policy team have been seizing every opportunity recently to voice support for Israel and its security needs, an attitude welcomed by American Jewish groups.
But foreign aid, as even Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin noted last month in a televised speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is “not the most popular” topic “nowadays in the United States and on the Hill.”
While the pro-Israel community expects this year’s foreign aid bill to pass, it is gearing up for a tough fight.
Experts suggest the Clinton administration is reacting favorably to Rabin because the United States prefers the foreign policy of his Labor government to that of the Likud opposition now led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher “want this guy to stay in power,” one analyst said of the administration’s view of Rabin. “They recognize, which Bush never understood, that you don’t get concessions from Israel by bullying.”
In addition, many observers cite the delicate balance of the Middle East peace process as a reason for the United States to keep Israel’s aid level constant.
“The U.S. shouldn’t send a signal to any of the parties” in the talks that it “will start changing aid levels,” said Gail Pressberg, president of Americans for Peace Now. “Aid is a very sensitive issue of foreign policy, and this is not the time to tamper with it.”
At a Senate hearing last week, Christopher said that funds for increasing U.S. aid to Russia should not come out of aid to Middle Eastern countries, in part because of those countries’ needs during the peace process.
ISRAEL IS THE ‘GOOD GUYS’ AGAIN
But the administration has sent conflicting signals over the future of aid to Israel.
While Christopher said last month that progress toward peace and improving Middle East economic conditions could lessen the need for American aid, a senior White House official suggested a week later that aid to Israel could be increased to compensate for any security concerns the country faced as the peace talks progressed.
Such an increase would follow the Camp David model. After the 1978 agreement with Egypt was signed, Israel was compensated for the relocation of military facilities and other costs connected with giving up Sinai.
The recent wave of Arab violence in Israel and the territories has made Americans more aware of Israel’s security problems, sources say, and therefore could create a climate more sympathetic to Israel’s financial and security needs.
“The general mood,” one source said, “is that Israel is the ‘good guys’ again.”
Any move to cut back on Israel’s aid right now, even if motivated purely by fiscal considerations, would send a signal the Clinton administration apparently has no desire to transmit.
The administration is “establishing its bona fides as a friend of Israel,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
Pipes advocates reducing Israel’s dependence on U.S. aid but argues that such a step is difficult for friends of Israel because of the political symbolism inherent in cutting aid to an ally.
Supporters of U.S. aid to Israel argue, as they always have, that the assistance benefits the United States by creating business and therefore jobs for the American military industry. They say foreign aid represents only about 1 percent of the overall U.S. budget and that 80 percent of foreign aid is actually spent in the United States.
But these advocates are operating in a difficult economic climate, geared more toward financial sacrifice at home than largess to those abroad.
The administration is expected to provide more specifics on its international budget soon, but so far it has said it seeks to slash over $2.3 billion in “outlay savings” for fiscal years 1994 through 1997, from overall international budgets totaling over $88 billion.
‘THE VOTES WILL BE THERE’
The cost-cutting mood is also prevalent on Capitol Hill.
It will be “much more difficult” this year to pass the foreign aid bill, said one Hill staffer.
In recent years, the staffer said, Republicans tended to support the aid bill because a Republican was in the White House. Now they might be less likely to support a Democratic president’s foreign aid request. In addition, some Democrats may buck their party’s traditional support for foreign aid as a show of support for domestic priorities.
One congressional aide said that immediately after Clinton announced his economic message in February, some in the pro-Israel community had begun sending out feelers on the Hill about offering a “little cut” in aid to Israel, if such a cut was, in fact, inevitable.
But in the wake of the administration’s strong comments in support of maintaining Israel’s current aid level, talk of “willingly conceding and taking a cut has dissipated,” the aide said.
Another problem for foreign aid advocates is that unlike last year, foreign aid is no longer “protected” and walled off from domestic spending. This year, members of Congress could move money from the foreign aid account into a domestic program if they wanted to.
The situation regarding aid to Israel “is more dangerous than in years,” one Hill staffer said. The administration support “is reassuring,” the aide said, “but there is still fear” in the pro-Israel community.
Nevertheless, supporters of aid to Israel believe everything will eventually work out to their liking.
While the pro-Israel community will have to “put a lot of energy into advocacy and education,” Pressberg said, “I think things on the Hill will work out. In the end, the votes will be there.”
“The bottom line,” said one congressional aide, “is that there’s a lot of talk about potential threats about cutting aid to Israel, but there’s relatively little chance that it will happen.”