Sharon May Hear Mixed Message
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due in town next week for a hastily arranged Washington visit that is being widely interpreted as a sweetener that helped tip the balance during a contentious cabinet meeting in Jerusalem over the weekend.
The invitation from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice came while Sharon and his fractious cabinet were deadlocked over a U.S. proposal for ending the virtual imprisonment of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in his shattered Ramallah headquarters.
Eventually, the cabinet accepted the plan — and Sharon was packing his bags for a trip to Washington, with a stop in New York a strong possibility.
U.S. and Israeli sources say the prime minister, who was pushing for the trip, and top U.S. officials will discuss a range of issues, including Israel’s
deteriorating international standing and the controversy over the proposed UN “fact-finding” mission to the Jenin refugee camp.
The message Sharon hears “will depend on who he’s talking to,” said Robert O. Freedman, a top Mideast scholar. “The differences in the administration have never been greater.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said, will “try very hard to persuade Sharon not to go back into the territories, and not to go after Arafat if there are more terror attacks. Sharon will probably hear a softer message from the president.”
Sharon, he said will try to reinforce his argument “that the United States and Israel are fighting terrorism together, each in its own way.”
And the administration, he said, will “see if they can press Sharon on the issue of a freeze in settlement building.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Sharon and administration officials will also discuss the idea of an international peace conference.
“The prime minister has raised the issue, and the administration is very interested in seeing whether a peace conference is, indeed, possible, and if so, on what terms. It’s still very unclear if there is a common basis for such a conference.”
At press time, the Israeli embassy did not know who Sharon would be meeting with, or when.
Extra Aid Dead in the Water
Despite upbeat official statements, pro-Israel lawmakers and activists are just about writing off a $200 million boost in military aid to Israel that seemed to be on track last week as part of a big supplemental appropriation for the war on terrorism.
The White House put the kibosh on the extra aid request by strong-arming pro-Israel Republicans into postponing efforts to restore an aid allocation the administration had deleted from its own appropriation proposal.
The administration action was the result of a confluence of factors, including complex diplomatic and political calculations, not to mention the shambles of the federal budget.
The State Department, according to Washington sources, had asked for an extra $200 million for Israel several weeks ago, but the request was cut in the administration’s budget proposal, despite some positive statements by several high-ranking State Department officials.
One reason: concern that extra aid, on top of Israel’s $2.8 billion annual allotment, would just fuel anger in the Arab world about the U.S. tilt toward Israel.
Another factor was a budget that looks increasingly like a federal disaster area, with soaring deficits and skyrocketing spending.
Efforts to win the extra aid were also complicated by the fact that an Israeli request for $800 million in aid has been on the table for more than two years, and that the rationale for that request has changed over time.
First, the aid was requested to help pay the costs of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon; later, it was described as necessary to help Israel with the security costs of fighting the new intifada.
Pro-Israel forces may have made a faulty calculation that the administration would offer just token resistance to the aid request, congressional sources say. Instead, the president himself shut the door on new aid this year, and White House operatives put the squeeze on congressional Republicans, including House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who had said they would go to the mat for the $200 million
Officially, pro-Israel members of Congress will continue trying to override the administration’s decision; in private, they say it is almost certain efforts to win the extra aid will have to wait until next year.
“Any effort to get this aid back in the bill has to be bipartisan,” said an official with a major Jewish group. “And right now, especially with people like Tom DeLay listening to the White House, we just don’t’ have that support.”
Administration Squelches Arafat Legislation — For Now
The administration has also weighed in with a heavy hand on a flurry of congressional resolutions on the troubled Middle East. That includes resolutions that do nothing more than show solidarity with Israel — and ones with more bite that would ratchet up the pressure on Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and impose sanctions on the government of Syria.
Last week Secretary of State Colin Powell met with congressional leaders and told them that a resolution expressing support for Israel would be “unhelpful” at this juncture because of ongoing U.S. cease-fire efforts.
White House officials have used the same argument to convince congressional leaders to hold off on a beefed-up bill imposing sanctions on Arafat.
This week, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) put a hold on the Arafat Accountability Act, a tougher version of a measure already under way in the House — the Middle East Peace Commitments Act (MEPCA), sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.) and Rep. Ben Gilman (R-Rockland).
Ackerman is continuing to collect signatures on his bill, but faces major hurdles getting it through the International Relations Committee — where Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), an administration loyalist, calls the shots.
“Members are inclined to honor the president’s request when he invokes national security,” said a Democratic congressional staffer. “People are willing to give him more time to make some progress in the region. But at some point, the administration has to either come thru with results, or it has to take the brakes off Congress.”
The word on Capitol Hill is that the administration is particularly worried about a measure by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) and Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) that would impose sanctions on Syria until the president certifies that Damascus has stopped supporting terror groups and building weapons of mass destruction , and until it has withdrawn its forces from Lebanon.
In a letter to Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a State Department official expressed support for the goals of the legislation but concern that it could limit the administration’s “flexibility” in Mideast peacemaking.
“For that reason we do not believe this is the right time for legislative initiatives that could complicate our efforts,” said Paul Kelly, assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the State Department.
A spokesman for Engel said the lawmaker is continuing to collect co-sponsors for his Syria Accountability Act.
Congress Weighs In On Anti-Semitic Surge
Official Washington is starting to pay more attention to the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe, as well as throughout the Islamic world.
Last week Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced a resolution calling on European governments to publicly acknowledge recent anti-Jewish attacks as violations of human rights and “to fully investigate such crimes and punish those responsible.”
Similar measures have been introduced by Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens).
Also, all but one senator — Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was undergoing heart surgery — signed a letter to President Bush urging him to raise the anti-Semitism issue “at the highest level” in his dealings with foreign governments.
The letter was circulated by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the ranking Republican.
“People in Congress and in the communities are desperate to do something,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “It’s created a whirlwind of activity.”
Even non-binding resolutions and congressional letters, she said, “create a feeling of movement, a comfort level that we in the Jewish community are not alone and that our positions are being heard and supported. That’s very important at a time like this.”
Also this week, the Anti-Defamation League formally asked the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom to investigate and speak out about the surge in anti-Semitism.
The Commission was created in 1998, with the support of Jewish groups such as the ADL; originally, backers expected it would focus heavily on persecution against Christians in Sudan, China and other countries.
But now, unexpectedly, the ADL is seeking to use the commission’s stature as an arm of the U.S. government to examine the alarming rise in anti-Semitism around the world.
“What we are witnessing today is something, which I profess to you, I never thought I would witness again in my lifetime,” said ADL national director Abraham Foxman in the letter. “The insidious way we have seen the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians used by anti-Semites — and some government leaders — as a justification for anti-Jewish violence sends a dangerous signal that religious minorities can be legitimately targeted as an outlet for political frustration. “
Foxman urged the commission to “use the full range of available tools to expose and counter the new wave of anti-Semitism.”
Also this week, the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Washington called off a planned Tuesday demonstration in front of the French embassy after European Jewish groups and Israeli officials expressed concern that a public demonstration just before Sunday’s runoff election might just boost the vote for ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen.