With Loan Sanctions a Possibility, Congress May Weigh in on Fence

U.S. lawmakers are gearing up to defend Israel’s security fence to the Bush administration, which continues to raise concerns about the barrier being erected between Israel and the West Bank.

The White House has acknowledged Israel’s right to construct a fence to prevent terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank. But the administration repeatedly has raised concerns about the fence’s route, agreeing with Palestinian and dovish Jewish leaders who describe it as an attempt to expand Israel’s borders.

President Bush said Friday that he believes the fence is a problem because it “kind of meanders around the West Bank, which makes it awfully hard to develop a contiguous” Palestinian “state over time.”

The fence issue is likely to remain a political hot potato in the weeks and months ahead. Even with Congress on recess, many lawmakers are gearing up for a fight on Israel’s behalf.

Several lawmakers spoke up last week, when the Bush administration floated the idea of reducing its loan-guarantee package to Israel to reflect the cost of the fence where it crosses the Green Line, the boundary that divides Israel proper from the West Bank, captured from Jordan in 1967.

Congress passed the loan guarantees last year with the condition that expenditures on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be deducted from the $9 billion total.

Officials in the Bush administration have argued that the clause also applies to spending on the fence. Many lawmakers, however, say the provision was meant to halt the expansion of settlements, not to penalize Israel for security expenditures.

“An overwhelming majority of this delegation sees the need for the fence and believes that it serves to prevent terrorist attacks,” Hoyer said on Friday in Jerusalem. “It would contribute to the security of Israel and contribute to the peace process itself.”

Hoyer said he believed the delegation — which was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — would speak out on the issue when Congress returns to session next month.

A delegation of Republican lawmakers, which AIEF is bringing to the Middle East next week, likely will speak out as well. Sources in the Jewish world said the goal is to show a largely united front on the issue, making it difficult for the White House to expend political capital on the issue without the risk of being seen as opposing Israel’s security needs.

Hoyer plans to write a letter to the president and an Op-Ed piece on the issue. So far, no related legislation is in the works.

“Over a majority of Congress will not support any reduction of funds authorized or appropriated to Israel as a result of the security fence,” said Hoyer, whose delegation visited parts of the fence.

The administration is trying to downplay the disagreement with Israel, noting that Israel has agreed to allow the United States to consult on the fence’s route and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised Bush that the fence will be built so as to minimize its impact on Palestinian commerce and travel.

But those who oppose the fence’s route also are trying to get the administration’s attention.

Palestinians and dovish Jewish groups are concerned that the fence preempts peace talks by unilaterally setting a border — and are especially incensed that the border might incorporate part of the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as their own.

Palestinian officials have told Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and others in Washington that the security fence separates some Palestinian farmers from their agricultural land — though Israel says the farmers will be able to access their fields via gates in the fence — and cuts off some villages from the cities they depend on for commerce.

Americans for Peace Now sent a letter to Bush backing the idea of reducing the loan guarantees.

“We hope you will make it clear to Israel that the U.S. opposes these ill-advised policies and that settlement-related expenditures — including subsidies and costs of route deviations in the security barrier — will be deducted from loan guarantees available to Israel in the coming years,” said the letter, signed by APN Chairman Luis Lainer and CEO Debra DeLee.

“Such deductions would be consistent with the letter and the spirit of U.S. law, as well as with your ongoing commitment to Israeli security — security that has been harmed, rather than served, by the Israeli government’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza,” they wrote.

APN would support a fence, provided it is built precisely along the Green Line. One congressional aide said supporters of APN’s position in Congress have not begun to strategize how to make their voices heard when Congress returns to session, but they believe “there are many members in Congress who agree with President Bush that the security fence is a problem.”

NEXT STORY