Jordan Wins Round One in Quest for Debt Relief from Washington

Scoring high marks for his historic summit here with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein of Jordan has won partial debt relief from Congress.

Less than a week after the Middle Eastern leaders declared an end to their 46-year-state-of-war and returned to their homes, U.S. lawmakers included in the final version of this year’s foreign aid bill over $200 million in debt relief to Jordan.

House and Senate conferees worked out the final version of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act in the early morning hours of last Friday. Once the measure is approved by both Houses of Congress, President Clinton is expected to sign it into law.

The $13.6 billion foreign aid package also includes $3 billion in aid to Israel, $2.1. billion to Egypt and $78 million for the Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho.

The United States will use $99 million to write off up to $220 million in Jordanian debt. The actual amount varies depending which loans are paid off and when.

Both Rabin and Hussein made the issue of debt relief for Jordan a priority during their meetings with President Clinton during the two-day summit last week.

After the measure is approved, Jordan will owe the United States approximately $500 million. Other nations, which hold over $6 billion in Jordanian debt, are expected to follow suit with limited debt relief before the end of the year.

While forthcoming in response to Jordan’s initial debt-relief request, Congress stipulated in the bill that in order to receive any additional debt write-offs, Jordan must end its boycott of Israel, sign a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel and adhere to United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

Capitol Hill leaders and White House officials plan to forgive the remainder of Jordan’s debt over the next two years if Jordan meets the measure’s requirements, sources say.

In a show of support for Jurdanian debt relief, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said last week that “Jordan and Israel have done their part. Now we must do ours.”

‘AMERICA STANDS WITH THE PEACEMAKERS’

Calling Jordan’s debt “crushing” and “crippling,” Christopher said, “We’re urging Congress to assist Jordan, to send a clear signal to the people of the region that America stands with those who are peacemakers.”

The foreign aid package also includes $80 million to assist Israel in resettling refugees from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and provides $7 million for Middle East regional cooperative ventures between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

After overcoming opposition from some senior members of Congress and the Clinton administration, the conference committee included three amendments in the bill’s final version relating to the Middle East.

In the first measure, the bill bans American diplomats from meeting with members of the Palestinian authority anywhere in Jerusalem to discuss matters concerning Gaza and Jericho. The original proposal, which banned all meetings regardless of subject matter, was toned down after strong protests from the State Department, Capitol Hill sources said.

Administration officials complained that a ban on all meetings would restrict their ability to conduct diplomacy, the sources said.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), also prohibits the United States from opening any new offices in Jerusalem to dispense aid to Gaza or Jericho.

The issue of aid to Palestinians being channeled through Jerusalem came to the fore last month when State Department officials confirmed the Agency for International Development was considering an office in eastern Jerusalem to dispense financial assistance to Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho.

A second amendment, sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Richard Shelby (D-Ala.), prohibits the United States from sending any aid to the Palestinians until the Palestine Liberation Organization amends the sections of its covenant calling for the destruction of the State of Israel.

The Specter-Shelby amendment also prevents the president from certifying PLO compliance with the peace accords without congressional oversight. The PLO in essence has six months to amend its covenant before the next time Clinton must certify to Congress that the PLO is in compliance. This amendment drew the most opposition but eventually passed.

Administration officials, as well as two powerful committee chairmen, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), had opposed the amendment because it limited the president’s authority in certifying PLO compliance.

The bill also includes a non-binding sense-of-the-Senate provision urging the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund not to give money to any countries that comply with any facet of the Arab boycott of Israel. The amendment was sponsored by Hank Brown (R-Colo.).

Lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, worked well into the early morning hours last Friday ensuring support for these amendments, Jordanian debt relief and the overall bill. The conference committee ended its work shortly before 4 a.m.

“AIPAC worked for passage of the many key provisions in the bill which are critical to Israel’s security, to a meaningful peace process and to ensuring a U.S. policy that supports Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital,” an AIPAC spokesperson said.

AIPAC supports the “phased approach to relieve Jordan’s debt as it moves toward a full peace treaty with Israel,” the spokesperson added.

Klein said he was “gratified” that the bill passed, emphasizing his support for the Specter-Shelby amendment.

In addition to the provisions for Jordan included in the foreign aid package, Jordan could receive additional financial windfall from a proposal advocated by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.)

In a letter to Clinton, Gephardt asked the president to expand the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement to include “those countries that conclude comprehensive peace agreements with Israel.”

“By expanding economic opportunity to the nations that will determine the future of the Middle East, we can build a much stronger foundation for peace,” Gephardt wrote.

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