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Behind the Headlines: Israel Lobbyists Meet Resistance in Charge Up the Hill for U.S. Aid

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The annual U.S. aid package to Israel cleared some major hurdles last week but it still has a ways to go before pro-Israel lobbyists can breathe a sigh of relief.

The full amount of military and economic aid — nearly $3 billion — appears to be safe for now, but the battle in Congress to keep the package intact has a number of steps to go through before the deal is done.

From the point of view of Jewish groups, this year’s controversy is continuing a disturbing trend.

Last year, the annual aid to Israel came under fire, and Jewish organizations had to fight for $1.8 billion in special funding for the Wye agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

And ever since the planned Israeli sale of an airborne early warning system to China became an issue earlier this year, there have been rumblings in Congress about placing some restrictions on aid and sending a message to Israel.

The full Senate and a House subcommittee passed their versions of the foreign operations bill, which includes the full Israel aid package — $1.98 billion in military and $840 million in economic funds — and schedules the aid to be distributed as a lump sum when the U.S. fiscal year starts in October.

Yet even though the aid is intact, it is subject to changes as it continues to go through both the House and Senate. Amendments can be offered to the bill even up to the last stage, where both sides of Congress iron out their differences and agree on a final version.

The road to this temporarily safe juncture was not particularly easy.

On the Senate side, where the foreign operations bill seemed like it would not be affected by the rumblings, a last-minute amendment from Sen. Jesse Helms (R- N.C.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, brought the issue into the spotlight.

Helms offered, but later withdrew, an amendment to cut $250 million — the cost of the sale to China — from the aid package. Helms intended to send a message to Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, who suggested that if aid to Israel is cut, Israel should consider cutting on some low-tech military purchases it makes in the United States.

Earlier, Helms had called for Sneh’s resignation because of the remark.

Only after significant lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which spoke to Helms and had other senators plead the case, did Helms agree not to pursue the cut.

The bill passed by 95-4.

On the House side, Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has led the charge for punitive measures against Israel unless they cancel the Israeli deal with China.

For weeks, Callahan had been threatening to cut $250 million from the aid package and arguing against early disbursal of U.S. assistance.

At a “markup” session of the foreign operations bill last week, which at times became ugly, Callahan almost made good on his threat.

Last week, Callahan had reportedly agreed not to push for the decrease in Israel’s aid if Democrats on the subcommittee agreed not to push for early disbursal.

Early disbursal, an almost automatic practice in past years, allows Israel to receive its aid at the beginning of the fiscal year, giving it a financial advantage.

Callahan argued against the procedure during the hearing and accused AIPAC of “twisting arms” in its push for early disbursal.

“They have convinced this Congress that Israel ought not to have to stand up to the same scrutiny as other countries,” Callahan said, calling the procedure “stupid foreign policy.”

The early disbursal amendment was ultimately adopted by voice vote.

An angry Callahan then offered an amendment to cut $250 million from the early disbursal until Israel canceled the radar sale to China or the Pentagon assured Congress that the sale would not threaten U.S. national security.

Other representatives also voiced their concern over the sale, saying it would endanger the lives of American soldiers stationed near Taiwan.

The panel defeated the amendment by a vote of 9-6.

Israel’s Channel One broadcast the committee hearing allowing Israelis to watch the bitter statements and animosity of the U.S. lawmakers.

In an editorial Thursday, the Jerusalem Post said the failed Callahan amendment was no victory for the Barak government. The newspaper called for Israel to cancel the Phalcon sale to China, saying it was hurting U.S.-Israel relations.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said recently that while the United States has “real concerns” about the proposed sale, the administration does not believe that linking the issue to U.S. aid is appropriate.

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