WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (JTA) — With this year’s foreign aid package sailing through Congress, pro-Israel activists have lost a major forum to raise concerns about aid to Egypt and the Palestinians.
Pro-Israel activists and lawmakers say that in the post-Sept. 11 environment, they are afraid to fight any aid allocations, for fear of being seen as opposed to the Bush administration’s coalition against terrorism.
The $15.6 billion foreign aid appropriations bill passed the Senate 96-2 last week, after being approved by the House of Representatives in July. A conference to work out the differences is expected in the near future.
In both versions, Israel receives $2.7 billion in economic and military aid, and $2 billion is allocated for Egypt.
While convincing lawmakers to support foreign aid has often been an uphill battle, this year the package — which includes aid to Pakistan, India and other countries supporting the war on terrorism — is expected to pass with overwhelming support.
Aid to Israel, which continues to be the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, has also in the past faced opposition. But at the same time, support for that aid often carries the entire bill.
Israel is expected to receive the full amount requested from the Bush administration — $2.04 billion for military aid and $720 million for economic needs.
That allotment is consistent with a plan to add $60 million in military aid and eliminate $120 million for economic aid to Israel each year for 10 years.
Under normal circumstances, the foreign aid process gave Israel supporters — both in Congress and out — more than an opportunity to send money to Israel.
It gave lawmakers and advocates a chance to make their voices heard by the administration, to speak out on concerns over the Middle East.
But several provisions, originally lobbied for by Israel supporters, have been dropped.
Instead of advocating on behalf of Israel, say observers, legislators want to show a united front in the coalition against terrorism.
Lawmakers are particularly wary of doing anything that could hurt support of the Arab states, deemed essential by the Bush administration to win the war against Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida network.
“The concern right now is not wasting capital on a fight that can’t be won,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “The administration is going to have its way.”
Before terrorist attacks struck at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, Jewish groups were touting the Middle East Peace Commitments Act, a bill requiring the president to periodically assess Palestinian commitments to its peace accords.
The legislation, a revival of old legislation that included sanctions against the Palestinian Authority if it was not found in compliance, was never introduced in the Senate after its two sponsors, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) bowed to White House pressure not to bring it up.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told Feinstein that the legislation would be “counterproductive” to the government’s efforts to build a coalition against terrorism.
“Imposing sanctions, or even waiving sanctions following a mandatory determination that would have triggered sanctions, would undermine our ability to play a role in defusing the crisis and returning the parties to negotiations,” Powell said in a Sept. 21 letter to Feinstein.
Powell also noted that the act would increase Arab criticism of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman said the senator agreed with Powell’s remarks.
“The current state of affairs has created an unparalleled situation,” Gantman said.
While the measure is still alive, having been passed in the House Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, its progress seems unlikely now.
Also shelved for the year is the $800 million in supplemental aid Israel has been expecting from the United States, promised by the Clinton administration for Israel’s withdrawal last year from southern Lebanon.
While the supplemental aid package had been declared “dead” as far back as June by State Department officials, some were holding out hope that it would be revived.
During the summer, the Bush administration indicated its opposition to the extra aid while it was mediating a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians. Now is seems unlikely that the Bush administration would give extra monetary support to Israel while it is trying to maintain Arab support for its coalition.
Some in the Jewish community were originally planning to focus on aid to Egypt, concerned about the country’s anti-Semitic press.
The Anti-Defamation League wanted $100 million of Egypt’s allocation to be placed in escrow until anti-Semitic cartoons and editorials were condemned by the government. U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) wanted the United States to phase out military aid to Egypt, saying the country needed economic help instead.
But now few are speaking out on either Egypt or the Palestinians.
“If we were not involved in this war against terror, with the administration’s strong desire to have as many Arab partners in this war as possible, there would have been major concerns raised about aid to Egypt and the Palestinians,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “Now, nobody wants to ruffle feathers.”
The outspoken ZOA leader said he has found it impossible to find lawmakers to pick up the Israel mantra, having been told by many that they are afraid of hurting the war effort.
Jewish activists are choosing instead to work behind the scenes with more modest goals.
An update by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee which is always considered a major player in the foreign aid process, last week focused its attention on these developments: floor comments by McConnell against terrorism and actions by the Palestinian Authority; tough questions for Powell during congressional hearings; and a letter to President Bush from two lawmakers seeking a wide definition of terrorist groups.
Exacerbating the situation has been the logistical problems on Capitol Hill, including a stoppage of incoming mail to lawmakers’ offices and anthrax scares that have canceled meetings and forced staffers to work from home.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he believes — despite the lack of attention to foreign aid — empathy for Israel is strong, and Jewish groups will be able to galvanize that support when the waves are calmer.
“You have to do things with common sense,” he said. “This is not a time when you can push on certain fronts.”