Activists fear budget proposals could endanger U.S. aid to Israel

WASHINGTON, March 29 (JTA) — Budget proposals speeding their way through Congress could endanger U.S. aid to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. That’s the charge from many in the Jewish community, which represents the loudest U.S. supporters of foreign aid. A $1.74 trillion House budget resolution approved last week would cut foreign affairs spending, by some $4 billion, to slightly more than $16 billion. A Senate version of the bill — also passed last week — also contains substantial cuts but not as deep. Domestic programs of interest to the Jewish community — including low-income housing and welfare — would also face similar cuts if the budget becomes law. If these budgets become law, “there’s no way we can get all the programs funded that we want, to adequate levels,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The House and Senate budgets, now subject to negotiation between representatives from each chamber, are the first step in setting federal spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. They also lay out spending guidelines for the next few years that include similar cuts. Much like President Clinton’s budget offered earlier this year, the proposals passed by Congress are the opening gambit in what is certain to be an arduous negotiating process. Although the U.S. government is enjoying forecasts of record budget surpluses, Congress and the Clinton administration are still living under the 1996 balanced budget agreement that requires deep cuts in federal spending. Only military spending, Social Security and Medicare are exempt from an estimated 12.2 percent cut in 2000 and 27.8 percent cut by 2004. Aid to Israel and the Middle East is already vulnerable, activists say, because it represents about half the total foreign aid budget. If the budget is slashed even further, activists fear cuts are inevitable. “These cuts would slash deeply into the bone and sinew of our programs,” U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters hours before the House approved its budget resolution on March 25. “These proposals are quite frankly outrageous and unacceptable,” she said, adding that “as currently constituted represent a clear and present danger to American safety, prosperity and values.” The House budget resolution calls for $16.4 billion in total foreign affairs spending, $2.3 billion less than the State Department was allocated for 1999. Clinton’s budget called for $20.9 billion for foreign affairs. How much would go to foreign aid and how much to foreign operations, such as embassies and personnel, is determined later on in the budgeting process. When the numbers became public last week, a huge wave of concern hit the Jewish community. “You can’t believe that they would be this irresponsible. I can’t believe that the numbers would hold up,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. But if they do, “Israel and Wye aid could be in danger,” Forman said, referring to a $1.9 billion package of aid promised Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians at the October Wye peace talks. Officials from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it is too early to say how the budget will affect aid to Israel. The issue for now, they said, is not about money for Israel but U.S. global leadership. “We are deeply concerned about these numbers. If they hold up, there will be a severe limitation on America’s ability to meet its global responsibilities,” said Kenneth Bricker, AIPAC spokesman. “The fulfillment of these obligations is crucial if the United States wants to remain a leader in the world,” he said. But not everyone in the Jewish community believes the budget should be opposed. Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a pro- Republican group, defended the budget, echoing Republican congressional leaders who say that federal spending needs to be reigned in. “The only people who could be unhappy with this budget are the people who don’t want to see Congress abide by the bipartisan agreement on spending caps, who don’t want to see Congress preserve and protect social security, who don’t want us to pay down our debt, who don’t want us to spend more on education and don’t want to see us upgrade and strengthen our national defense,” Brooks said. “Because the reality is, that this budget does all of these things.” As for aid to Israel, Brooks believes it is protected by this budget. “It is the Clinton administration that is trying to unilaterally cut aid to Israel against the wishes of those in Congress,” he said, referring to a White House plan to speed Israel’s reduction of economic assistance. Israel itself has proposed cutting back on U.S. economic assistance, but at a slower rate than the White House.

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