WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 (JTA) — The Bush administration and Democrats in Congress are staking out their Middle East policies ahead of elections in which both parties will be vying hard for Jewish support. President Bush is enjoying strong support from American Jews, but initiatives by Democrats in Congress this week highlight actions the administration has not taken. One such effort seeks to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "While it may not be a coordinated campaign strategy, there is a weakness there that will be exploited by the Democrats," one Jewish official said. The political posturing comes at a sensitive time for Bush. The White House announced this week that Israeli spending on settlement development would be matched in reductions in loan guarantees, currently set at $9 billion. Several initiatives reinforce Israel´s claim to Jerusalem. With the backing of several legislators, Brooklyn native Ari Zivotofsky living in Israel sued the U.S. government Tuesday, arguing the Bush administration is breaking the law by not listing Israel as the country of birth for his newborn son, born in Jerusalem. The United States has consistently listed the city of Jerusalem without a country affiliate, because the status of Jerusalem is viewed as an issue for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But a law, which Bush signed last year, required the State Department to list Jerusalem as Israel´s capital on all official documents. At the time, Bush said he viewed the law as advisory, and that enforcing it would tie the administration´s hands in foreign policy. Now, Zivotofsky is suing Secretary of State Colin Powell for violating the law. "This is simply an issue of recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel," Zivotofsky said. "The fact that they don´t put that in, it is a strong statement against Israel." Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who is backing Zivotofsky, said the president does not have the right to not enforce laws passed by Congress. "You can´t sign a law and say ‘I´ll enforce it if I want to,´ " said Weiner, who sponsored the Israeli Capital Recognition Act last year. "This is not foreign policy, this is how clerks in the State Department are going to fill out paperwork." A State Department spokesman was unavailable for comment. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) is circulating a letter from lawmakers, asking the Bush administration reconsider its policy on the U.S. Embassy in Israel. "Despite frequent invocation of intentions to bring closer the movement of America´s embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish state, we have to date, seen absolutely nothing to indicate that this commitment has been taken seriously," said the letter, signed by Ackerman and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). They are currently seeking colleagues to join the letter. Both Clinton and Bush have consistently avoided enforcing the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, citing national security concerns. Bush signed the latest six-month waiver in June. Another Ackerman initiative calls for downgrading U.S. relations with Syria. In a letter given Tuesday to John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Ackerman asked that the United States not send an ambassador to Damascus and refuse one from Syria until the country cuts ties with terrorist organizations. The Bush administration is eager to get its "road map" to Middle East peace back on course. One element of the road map is stopping Palestinian terror; another is limiting the growth of Jewish settlements in disputed areas. To that end, the Bush administration announced Monday that it would deduct funds from the $9 billion in loan guarantees Israel is expected to receive over the next three years as a penalty for Israeli spending on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "The precise amount is still being determined, but will be an estimate based on a range of Israeli government expenses associated with the settlement activity," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Tuesday." The announcement came this week, but is not connected to recent Israeli actions, Israeli and U.S. officials said. Previous loan guarantees to Israel have faced similar deductions. The United States can deduct a dollar from the loan guarantees for each dollar Israel spends on the settlements, but a lower amount may be negotiated. Peace Now in Israel estimates that Israel spent close to $500 million in the West Bank and Gaza in 2001 for civilian settlement-related purposes. While there have been budget cuts in Israel since then, there have also been new programs announced to benefit the settlements and their occupants, according to Americans for Peace Now. Loan guarantees allow Israel to borrow money at a reduced rate. Israel is expected to see $1.65 billion in loans this year, and the deduction will be incurred in future years. Lawmakers were angered this summer when the Bush administration hinted that it might also deduct Israeli expenses on a security fence that juts into West Bank territory. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that nothing could be ruled out. While pro-Israel lawmakers are likely to be disappointed with the Bush administration´s decision on the settlement issue, it is not likely to galvanize Democrats. "I don´t see a lot of legislators ready to fall on their swords for settlement expansion," one Democratic congressional aide said. Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that while there is no concerted effort to tarnish the president´s record on Israel and the Middle East, there is a need to highlight inconsistencies between what Republicans are saying and doing. "Are Democrats sick and tired of them playing politics here, you bet," Forman said. Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Democrats are trying to minimize Bush´s accomplishments and undermine the president´s efforts for political gain. "They can try and paint the president every which way they want, but at the end of the day, Ariel Sharon said George W. Bush is the most pro-Israel president in history," he said.
Middle East becomes political football