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Mounting a full-court press for Wye aid

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26 (JTA) — With nearly $2 billion in aid to fund the Wye agreement still trapped in the budget battle between congressional Republicans and President Clinton, pro-Israel activists and Israeli officials are engaged in one of their most intense lobbying efforts in years.

A few hundred activists and several top Israeli officials descended on Capitol Hill this week to urge lawmakers to provide the aid requested by the president before Congress adjourns this fall.

Two hundred members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who were in Washington for a previously scheduled meeting, met with 150 lawmakers on Monday and Tuesday, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who recently expressed some concerns about the aid.

“The members we met with are overwhelmingly supportive of the Wye package,” said Kenneth Bricker, AIPAC’s spokesman. “The real issue is finding the right legislative vehicle within the framework of the budget.”

Other Jewish groups have also stepped up their efforts to secure the aid, which was pledged by Clinton when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Wye accord a year ago.

Clinton asked Congress to provide Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians with $1.9 billion in special funds to help implement the deal which, among other things, called on Israel to undertake a further withdrawal from the West Bank in three phases in exchange for an aggressive Palestinian effort to root out terrorism.

So far, only $100 million for Jordan was approved after the death of King Hussein in February. Clinton had asked for $1.2 billion for Israel, $400 million for the Palestinians and $300 million for Jordan.

The Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah are sending letters supporting the Wye aid to every member of Congress.

The ADL was also planning to advertise this week in two Capitol Hill newspapers read widely by lawmakers and their staffs. The ads discuss the “the critical importance of the Wye commitment and the damage that could result from the delay of funding.”

The job of the Jewish community is “to condition the environment in Washington” so that the Wye money will be included “when the president and the Congress are sitting around the table” looking for a legislative vehicle to fund the special aid package, said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group of local community relations councils.

Raffel said officials at community councils across the country were urging members of their local communities to urge their lawmakers to support the Wye aid.

At the time of the Wye signing, Republican congressional leaders raised concerns about how they would pay for Clinton’s pledge and were upset that they were not consulted before the offer was made.

Those concerns became moot after implementation of the agreement was halted by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But now, with the agreement moving forward after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat reached a new understanding in Egypt in September, funding for Wye has become an issue once again.

It has also become one of the focal points in the battle over spending priorities between the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democratic-controlled White House.

Last week, Clinton vetoed a $12.6 billion foreign aid bill that narrowly passed both houses of Congress because it fell $2 billion short of his request and does not include funding for Wye. The bill included nearly $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel.

The foreign aid bill “sent the worst possible signal to our friends in the Middle East, and the strongest possible encouragement to those in the region who would do us harm,” National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said last week at an event sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum.

“As we have made clear, the president will not sign a foreign operations bill that does not contain” the Wye aid.

As part of the Israeli lobbying effort, top government officials made a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill urging key lawmakers to appropriate the aid. Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Science Minister Matan Vilnai and met with lawmakers on Monday and Tuesday.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh concluded meetings last week, expressing optimism that the aid would be approved before Thanksgiving.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, who accompanied Netanyahu to the nine days and nights of talks last October at Wye, a secluded retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where the agreement was reached, told lawmakers last week that the aid promised by Clinton was a key factor in the Israelis decision to agree to the deal, under which they would incur substantial costs to redeploy troops and dismantle bases.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has said that the whole peace process could be held up without the Wye aid, said Tuesday at a joint news conference with visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that Israel is already spending the money promised by Clinton.

Cohen said the Clinton administration is committed to fulfilling the president’s pledge. Dennis Ross, the U.S. special Middle East coordinator, told a private meeting earlier this month that Congress’ failure to appropriate the aid would be “devastating” to the peace process, according to sources who attended the off-the-record briefing held by the Israel Policy Forum.

Republican leaders could not be immediately reached on Tuesday after the lobbying blitz.

However, Lott had recently expressed concerns about the implementation of the agreement.

“We want the Wye accords to work,” Lott said at an Oct. 13 Orthodox Union event here, but he added that Congress needs “to be careful about providing the money before the actions are taken.”

Lott said he has “always been worried about the Palestinians living up to their commitments.” One proposal that has been floating around Capitol Hill would have the aid approved in the spring as part of an “emergency” spending bill.

But Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, said there is support for Wye aid on Capitol Hill now, although the exact legislative vehicle for aid is still not clear. Observers said the aid could be included in a revamped foreign aid bill or some kind of catch-all spending bill that would fund programs not already provided funds through the regular appropriations process.

“The rhetoric of ‘We support Wye’ has to be met with the actions,” Kohr said. Nearly 100 members of the House — 91 Democrats and six Republicans — have signed a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) urging the leaders to “make full and immediate funding for the Wye River agreement a high priority” before Congress adjourns this year.

The letter, which is still being circulated, is being spearheaded by Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).

A similar letter, circulated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the Senate, was signed by 22 senators- 19 Democrats and three Republicans — and sent to the president, Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Dashcle (D-S.D.) last month.

Although pro-Israel activists have said both Democrats and Republicans in Congress support the Wye aid but are struggling to find the money to fund it, top Republicans have made clear in the last week that they are not thrilled with shipping more aid overseas and have pitted foreign aid against domestic spending.

“The president wants more money for foreign aid, but at what cost?” Hastert asked this week. “The president wants to either raise taxes or raid the Social Security trust fund, and then turn around and give this money to foreign nations. This is completely unnecessary and Republicans will play no part in this scheme.”

Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, raised eyebrows when he said during debate over the foreign aid bill that “every time somebody walks in the White House with a turban on his head,” the president decides to give him some money.

For their part, Clinton administration officials and Democrats have criticized Republicans for being “isolationists.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), said in an interview that it is “absolute poison” the way in which Republicans are playing foreign aid against Social Security and other domestic programs.

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