Debate over Foreign Aid Produces Unusual Alliances

When congressional Republicans protested Israel’s $3 billion in foreign aid in a measure weaving its way through Capitol Hill, they expected the support of American Jews.

Instead, some Jewish organizations and members of Congress accused them of putting Israel in long-term danger and pushing American into a period of isolationism.

“This is not an Israel-friendly bill that over the long-term solidifies the [U.S.-Israel] relationship,” said Howard Berman (D- Calif.) as he argued against the American Overseas Interests Act on the floor of the House of Representatives last week.

Cutting the United States’ $19.3 billion international assistance program by more than $1.5 billion while protecting aid to the Middle East would make Israel’s aid indefensible in future years, Berman charged.

“You cannot justify and maintain foreign assistance to Israel when you are slashing” foreign aid to everyone else, Berman said.

“The massive budget cuts are unwise and short-sighted,” added Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

The debate over the current measure, which the House is scheduled to vote on next week, has produced some unusual alliances and pitted some usual allies against each other.

In the organized Jewish community, the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, stands virtually alone in actively supporting the bill. Other groups have expressed concern that the legislation slashes assistance to other countries.

Meanwhile, AIPAC finds itself at odds with staunchly pro-Israel Democratic lawmakers such as Berman and Ackerman.

Much of the debate has to do with politics.

As budget-cutting Republicans pressed for the foreign aid cuts, Democrats charged that they were left out of the process. Foreign aid has traditionally garnered bipartisan support, with the Jewish community its loudest advocate.

In addition to slashing foreign aid, the measure merges with the State Department three other agencies: the Agency for International Development, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the U.S. Information Agency.

Now, Jewish Democratic lawmakers, who have often spearheaded support for foreign aid legislation among their colleagues, find themselves in the unusual position of opposing aid.

Jewish Democrats were so concerned about the developments that Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) gathered the troops to discuss strategy.

The lawmakers agreed to stay unified in their opposition and to “ensure that a vote against the bill is not viewed as a vote against Israel,” according to an aide of one of the lawmakers present at the meeting.

Jewish Democrats and black lawmakers have also banded together to oppose the bill.

Ever since signing the Camp David Accords, Israel and Egypt have been the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Israel’s annual $3 billion and Egypt’s $2.1 billion now account for nearly 20 percent of the foreign aid budget.

The measure “includes everything we could want,” an AIPAC official said, adding that the bill is “nothing but good for Israel.”

In a letter sent to House members, AIPAC urged representatives to support the bill because it included Israel’s $3 billion in military and economic aid as well as other provisions that would net the Jewish state millions. The legislation includes $80 million in refugee assistance and other aid to Israel.

In an action alert to its member agencies, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council called the bill “seriously flawed” because it is widely viewed as a “weakening of the U.S. commitment” to “provide strong leadership in international affairs.”

The group, while welcoming the bill’s support for Israel and Egypt, expressed “special concern” over the proposed cut in aid to sub-Saharan African nations and to Russia.

NJCRAC was unable to arrive at a consensus on whether to support the bill because of some group’s opposition to it in its present form, according to the NJCRAC alert.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee have turned up the heart on members of Congress.

Fearing a new trend toward isolationism, the AJCommittee began an advertising campaign in national newspapers last week. “American leadership in world affairs is expensive. Until you consider the alternative,” the headline blared.

The full-page ad urges support for the foreign aid program in general.

Ackerman’s arguments expressed similar concerns.

“This is a dangerous precedent which will leave the Middle East peace process hanging out, almost alone, vulnerable to future cuts when the peace process may require larger, rather than smaller, allocations in order to be implemented,” he said, arguing against the measure last week.

“I am glad that this bill takes care of Israel this year,” Ackerman said. “If it is the intent to take care of the few to the detriment of all others, I will not buy it. I will not be put in a position of being for myself alone.”

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee, led unanimous Democratic opposition to the measure in the committee.

Hamilton also raised the stakes for Jewish opposition to the bill, arguing that a provision tying aid to allowing humanitarian shipments could backfire against Israel.

“If Israel decides for security reasons, for example, to stop a single [humanitarian] shipment to Gaza or Jericho, its aid would have to be cut off,” Hamilton said.

Fearing defeat, House Republicans last week abruptly canceled a vote on the measure until after they return from Memorial Day recess next week.

NEXT STORY