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News Analysis: Israel Activists Faced Dilemma As Clinton Tried to Avert Conflict

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An 11th-hour White House move last week to avert the second veto override of Bill Clinton’s presidency put pro-Israel activists in a bind.

Would they support Clinton or members of Congress, whom they had successfully courted for almost a year to gain the necessary two-thirds majority to override the veto?

At issue was a measure, aimed primarily at Russia, that would impose sanctions on companies, institutions and governments selling technology that aid Iran’s missile program.

So successful was the Jewish community’s yearlong lobbying campaign that only 26 members of the House and Senate combined voted against the measure, all but guaranteeing that Clinton’s veto would be overridden.

The legislation, the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act, was sent to the White House in May and vetoed by the president last month.

But only hours before a scheduled House vote to override the veto on July 15, the White House announced a coordinated a move with Moscow aimed at heading off the veto override.

As Russia began an investigation into nine institutions and companies, some state-owned, the United States cut off all funds and trade with those very institutions.

The Kremlin has always denied providing any official help to the Islamic republic’s plans to design weapons of mass destruction, but admits that some Russian companies may be involved in privately selling sensitive technologies to Iran.

Russia vowed last week to press criminal charges against any company involved in the illegal transfer of such technology.

Clinton administration officials hoped the Russian move, combined with immediate U.S. sanctions, would stop the push for the legislation that they vehemently opposed.

The bill, the administration argued, would tie the president’s hands in dealing with Russia, trigger sanctions with too little evidence and alienate the Russian officials they were coaxing to stop the trade with Iran.

But the White House move would not work unless the pro-Israel lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, agreed to stop pushing Congress for an override vote.

Key members of Congress wanted the nod from the Jewish community, which had made this issue a top agenda item, before backing away from their battle with the White House.

With Iran aggressively pursuing the supplies and technology to build medium- range missiles that would bring Israel into firing range, activists called the matter a question of life and death.

During the past year, Israeli and American intelligence reports have found extensive Russian cooperation with Iran that Israelis have said has put Tehran only 18 months away from deploying such missiles. But the intelligence assessments said the program would fall short of its goal if Russia stopped the flow of parts and knowledge.

When they began their lobbying campaign last year to find a way to halt Iran’s ability to develop missiles, Jewish groups said that legislation was not necessarily their primary goal.

Instead, they said, the goal was to end Russian support for Iran’s missile program. In the absence of unilateral action from the Russians, they said, legislation seemed to be the best way to attain that objective.

Last week, when Russia moved to take concrete action, the moment of truth had arrived for the Jewish activists.

A series of conversations between Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, and Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, sealed the deal.

AIPAC would support the White House’s campaign to postpone the vote to override Clinton’s veto, according to sources close to the discussions. White House officials also sought out leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to brief them on the moves, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the umbrella group of 55 Jewish organizations.

Hoenlein had traveled to Russia late last year with a delegation from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry to urge officials to stop companies from exporting to Iran goods that could contribute to their weapons program.

By the time Hoenlein ran into Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on July 15 at a 90th birthday celebration in Detroit for Jewish leader Max Fisher, the speaker of the house had already postponed the vote.

After initially delaying the override for only two days, Gingrich last Friday pulled the measure from the House floor and agreed to give the Russian-American initiative a chance to work.

Congress has until the end of its session, currently scheduled for the first week in October, to revisit the issue.

Kohr called the Russian move to investigate its institutions “unprecedented” and a “major decision,” but he vowed that AIPAC would press for a veto override “if there is not significant progress.”

AIPAC will be closely monitoring a visit to Russia this week by Vice President Al Gore, who is expected to raise the issue with Russian officials.

Before Gore left on Tuesday, Israel’s point man on the issue, Natan Sharansky, the trade and industry minister, was in Washington. He briefed Gore on last week’s visit to Israel by Nikolai Kovalev, the head of Russia’s security service.

It was the first known visit to the Jewish state by a head of the Russian security service. The meeting focused on several issues, including Russia’s relations with Iran.

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