WASHINGTON, June 28 (JTA) — The annual U.S. aid package to Israel has cleared some major hurdles, 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 safe for now, but the battle in Congress to keep the package intact has a number of steps 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.
Both the Clinton administration and members of Congress have expressed concern that selling advanced weaponry to China would threaten U.S. security interests in that region. But the administration has urged against linking aid to the issue.
As of this week, the full Senate and a House committee 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.
While the aid is intact for now, that could change as it proceeds through the legislative process. Amendments can be offered to the bill even up to the last stage, when 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.
The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to attach an amendment to the foreign aid bill urging Israel to cancel the planned Phalcon sale to China. The bill passed by a voice vote, but along the way, David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he would no longer support aid to Israel if the sale proceeds.
The amendment did not seek a reduction in aid, but instead said members are “very disturbed” by the planned sale and “Congress urges Israel to terminate the existing contract.”
Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, called the amendment a “copout” because it had no punitive measure.
For weeks, Callahan has led the charge for punitive measures against Israel unless it cancels the Phalcon deal. He has threatened to cut $250 million from the aid package — the cost of the sale to China — and has argued against early disbursal of U.S. assistance.
Callahan failed in his effort to pass an amendment at Tuesday’s Appropriations Committee hearing that would cut the $250 million from early disbursal of Israel’s foreign aid.
Many members of the committee voiced their opposition to the potential radar sale but did not support Callahan’s proposal, saying such a move could threaten progress on Middle East peace negotiations.
Callahan had failed with a similar effort last week when the bill passed his subcommittee on foreign operations. At that hearing, he accusing the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, of “twisting arms.”
On Tuesday, Callahan said he intends to bring the amendment up again once the bill reaches the House floor, which could happen in the next few days or after the July 4 recess.
In the Senate, where the foreign operations bill seemed less likely to 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 from the aid package. Helms apparently intended to send a message to Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, who had earlier suggested that if aid to Israel is reduced, Israel should consider cutting out 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 the Senate by 95-4.