News Analysis: Hold on Aid to Israel Prompts Question of What Went Wrong

When key members of Congress prevented the delivery of U.S. aid to Israel last week, many began to wonder what had happened to the once-sacrosanct status of the assistance.

Had relations with Israel sunk to the point that U.S. aid was now in danger? Had the impasse in the peace process spilled over into the foreign aid program?

Had anti-foreign-aid lawmakers succeeded in taking over the federal spending process? Or was it a technical congressional dispute over how to divide the foreign aid pie?

The move was especially distressing, activists said, coming on the heels of a threat to withhold U.S. aid if Israel did not extradite a Maryland murder suspect.

At the end of the day, the episode was resolved, clearing the way for $75.6 million to be sent to Israel this week.

And the furor surrounding it has been chalked up as a giant misunderstanding that says more about the inner workings of foreign aid than it does about a new outlook on relations with Israel.

“This was as much as anything a miscommunication,” said an official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The situation was exacerbated by a “peculiar notification procedure” and “fluky events,” said this official of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.

The issue was finally resolved Tuesday, when the Israeli government sent a letter to Capitol Hill promising to redirect part of its own aid to Jordan – - which was the sticking point all along.

Still, the last few weeks proved a tense time for the pro-Israel community as the Jewish state came under sustained attack from those lawmakers most closely associated with U.S. foreign aid.

Despite the rocky road, some pro-Israel activists argue that the aid package came away stronger because the congressional leadership emerged as a champion of aid to Israel, which receives $3 billion annually in military and economic assistance.

Indeed, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) unabashedly made clear that Israel’s aid would not be subject to the whims of a subcommittee chairman.

How the aid wound up tangled in the inner workings of Congress was as much a result of legislative wrangling as it was missteps by its supporters, congressional aides said.

A series of factors came together in a short period of time that allowed members of Congress to hold up Israel’s aid for the first time since the United States began providing Israel assistance decades ago.

Earlier this month, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R- La.) went on national television and threatened to withhold as much as $1.2 billion in aid if Israel did not extradite a Maryland teen-age murder suspect who fled to Israel.

Once Israel agreed that Samuel Sheinbein was not entitled to Israeli citizenship and could be extradited to the United States to stand trial, Livingston withdrew his threat.

At the same time, Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the committee that writes the foreign aid bill, placed a hold on $75.6 million in aid until Israel agreed to return $50 million later in the year so the United States could send it to Jordan.

Under an agreement reached last year among U.S., Israeli and Egyptian officials, Israel and Egypt are supposed to give back $50 million each from their aid to supplement Jordan’s $125 million direct U.S. aid package.

Because there was no foreign aid bill at the beginning of the federal fiscal year Oct. 1, Congress passed a stopgap spending bill to temporarily fund thousands of federal programs, including foreign aid to Israel.

Under this temporary measure, the Clinton administration must notify Congress of its spending intentions.

But in response to the notification that the administration would send the $75.6 million installment of aid to Israel, Callahan, using his prerogative as committee chairman, wasted no time in saying no.

But Callahan reversed his position after pressure from Gingrich.

Sill not satisfied that Israel would deliver on its earlier promise to help Jordan, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), the senior Democrat on the appropriations committee, stepped in to reinstate the hold.

By all accounts, the problems began when Israeli Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman incensed U.S. lawmakers when he said during a recent visit to Washington that the Knesset might not be able to pass the plan to return $50 million.

According to Republican and Democratic congressional sources, the problems were exacerbated by a perception on Capitol Hill that the Israeli Embassy does not speak for the Netanyahu government.

Despite reassurances from Israeli officials in Washington, Obey and the Clinton administration wanted Jerusalem to weigh in directly, which they did with this week’s letter.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a pro- Republican Jewish lobbying group, summed up the series of events this way:

“Israel’s aid was caught in a legislative catch-22,” Brooks said, adding the widely held Jewish view that “it’s wrong for people in Congress to use aid to exert pressure.”

Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council agreed, saying: “There’s enough blame to go around.”

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