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Behind the Headlines: Jockeying for Foreign Aid: Israel Assistance Spotlighted

The annual jockeying for pieces of the foreign-aid pie officially began last week, when a coalition of international organizations released a study calling American foreign aid to Israel and Egypt a “nightmarish waste of U.S. tax dollars.”

The organizations, calling themselves the Coalition to Rethink Aid to the Middle East, called on Congress to phase out the current $5 billion-plus aid program to the Middle East in favor of refuge and humanitarian assistance abroad.

Pro-Israel activists were quick to criticize the report.

“This study is a simplistic view of the reality in Washington,” said one activist, who requested anonymity.

“The notion that cutting aid to Israel will transfer money to other countries and development programs is not a reflection of reality,” the activist said.

More likely, said another, “if aid to Israel is cut, it will be used to fund the deficit, not developmental assistance.”

Some Jewish activists dismissed the report’s relevancy, noting that several of the groups involved have been outspoken opponents of aid to Israel in the past.

Among the groups involved in the coalition are CARE as well as come major Christian organizations, including Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Churches for Middle East Peace.

Despite the tendency to dismiss the report, some Jewish activists privately expressed concern about it, especially because the report comes amid increasingly vocal expressions of opposition to foreign aid.

This year’s foreign-aid debate is being waged in a growing isolationist climate, both on Capitol Hill and beyond the Washington beltway.

The coalition’s report was issued just days before President Clinton submitted to Congress his 1996 budget, which calls for $21.2 billion in foreign aid, including $3 billion to Israel and $2.1 billion to Egypt.

Longtime pro-Israel activists say they hope that Congress will come through with the annual aid to Israel and Egypt.

But they say that although not new, the attempt to frame the debate as “either aid for Israel or aid for humanitarian causes” is receiving more attention than it has in the past.

The coalition’s report, “Toward a Safer Future for the Children of Abraham: A Proposal for Restructuring U.S. Aid to the Middle East,” was distributed to all members of Congress.

“U.S. foreign aid to Israel and Egypt remains locked on to obsolete objectives and fails to meet the opportunities of the new era,” said Peter Gubser, president of American Near East Refuge Aid.

The eight-page report, more than a year in the making, calls for a region wide freeze on arms imports, the converting of economic aid to humanitarian programs and the phasing out of military aid.

Under the group’s proposal, aid to Israel-$2.1 billion economic and $1.8 billion military-would in essence be phased out.

Jewish officials from the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism met last week with the report’s authors at the coalition’s request.

Stacy Burdett, ADL’s assistant director in Washington, said she “raised serious objections to the report” at the meeting.

She said she specifically questioned the plan to cut aid to Israel and Egypt at this crucial juncture in the Middle East peace process.

The report was issued on the heels of another recent study that showed that Americans are more supportive of foreign aid for humanitarian efforts than they are of aid to Israel and Egypt.

The study, “Americans and Foreign Aid: A Study of American Public Attitudes,” found that when military and economic aid to Israel was weighed against issues such as aid for child survival or Peace Corp’s programs, aid to Israel was a less popular cause.

According to the study, 56 percent of those interviewed favored cutting military and economic aid to Israel and Egypt, while only 4 percent favored increasing that aid. The rest favored maintaining current aid levels.

Fully 80 percent agreed with the statement: “The United States should be willing to share at least a small portion of its wealth with those in the world who are in great need.”

That study, commissioned by a University of Maryland program on policy attitudes, did not raise major alarm bells in the Jewish community. Some activists cautioned against blowing the results out of proportion.

“It was one question. It gave no explanation for the aid,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center. He stressed that the survey showed preference for different aid programs and was not a condemnation of aid to the Middle East.

InterAction, a non-profit umbrella relief agency of 160 members, publicized the study at a news conference here last week to publicize the University of Maryland study.

InterAction includes Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the American Jewish World Service, American ORT, the Council of Jewish Federations and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The Jewish groups, involved with Inter-Action to varying degrees, are affiliated with the group because of their international work.

Representatives of the Jewish groups involved with InterAction had mixed views on InterAction’s effort to distinguish between aid for Israel and aid for international humanitarian programs.

Some said they felt that both programs should be considered equally. Others suggested that humanitarian aid was more important.

“The kind of stuff where you help developing countries makes a lot of sense,” said Howard Cohen, executive director of American ORT, which runs vocational training programs in developing countries.

Cohen said that ORT did not have a position on foreign aid. But from a personal perspective, he questioned the need for economic aid to Israel.

“Israel is now an incredibly progressive, relatively wealthy, self-sufficient country. You have to wonder, is it still necessary to continue economic aid?” he said.

He also said he believed that the United States should continue its military aid to Israel because it makes Israel a strategic partner in the Middle East.

Richard Jacobs, CJF’s associate executive vice president, said his organization’s involvement with InterAction did not present a conflict for CJF because his group gives equal weight to aid for Israel’s and aid for humanitarian efforts.

“In situations where we see two rights, we push for both and press [Congress] to look for the money elsewhere in the budget,” said Jacobs, noting that CJF has passed a resolution supporting current levels of aid to Israel.

To many in the Jewish community, foreign aid should not be an “either/or” proposition. The Jewish community should lobby for foreign aid in general, some say.

“In terms of the Jewish community, it’s not an either/or choice,” said the Reform movement’s Saperstein.

Both moral and political factors play a part in the reasoning, Saperstein said.

“It’s morally right for Jews to actively fight for America to play a lead role in helping hungry people, sustaining new democracies and working for human rights and sustainable development,” he said.

On the political side, he said, Israel has always been the most popular part of an unpopular package. It is support for aid to Israel that has carried the foreign-aid package in general for years, he said.

“If we care about aid to Israel, it behooves us to fight for foreign aid in general,” he said.

Officials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee agree.

“Our main priority is to ensure aid for Israel,” said an official with AIPAC, the chief pro-Israel lobbying organization.

“The way you do that is to make sure that we have a viable foreign-aid program. They go hand in hand,” the official said.

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