Posted on August 07, 2000 in Washington Watch

There is a determined effort underway to garner US. Support for Lebanon in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from the south of Lebanon.

During the last weeks of July, a bipartisan group of Congress members began to circulate, for co-signatories, a letter they will send to President Clinton. The letter asks the President to authorize a “significant aid package” for Lebanon–most probably in the range of $50 to $100 million this year.

The members of Congress note that the devastation that Lebanon has endured and also note that a stable and reconstructed Lebanon is necessary for there to be a peaceful Middle East.

In only the first three days of its circulation, the letter collected the endorsement of 25 members of Congress, including the Arab American members, members of Congress who represent districts with large Arab American populations, and a number of pro-peace American Jewish Congressmen.

Arab Americans have launched a campaign to help secure additional endorsements for the letter.

Lebanon also has received the support of the only Arab American Senator, Spencer Abraham, who has requested $250 million in aid. Abraham’s request has also gained the support of other Republican Senators.

Adding to these efforts, the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Conference has urged the Administration and Congress to respond to Lebanon’s needs urging them to “take into account Lebanon’s changed circumstances and respond generously to Lebanon’s reconstruction and development.”

Despite Lebanon’s obvious need and the positive signs of early support for the congressional effort, it would be a mistake to assume that a US. aid package for Lebanon will be easy to secure.

There are several factors to consider here:

  • First and foremost is the fact that most foreign aid requests are always difficult. This year Congress slashed the President’s overall foreign aid request by more than $1 billion.

    What is clever about the new Lebanon request is that the congressional letter seeks to take the Lebanon grant out of the $100 million that has been reduced, by agreement, from the amount Israel and Egypt are allotted instead of seeking new money.

    Despite the fact that this is the end of the year and the budget negotiations are nearly completed, the co-sponsors of the Lebanon aid request, still believe that money can be found if the Administration is supportive of the effort.

  • Up until now, the Administration has not made its intentions known. When Arab Americans met with the President’s National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, to press for Lebanon aid, they were told that the Administration hoped to complete Camp David and then make a comprehensive aid request of Congress. The Administration calculated that such a comprehensive regional package would be easier to pass through a Republican led Congress that has shown itself to be hostile to the overall foreign aid program.

    1. When Camp David stalled, the Administration began to reassess its approach. In his interview with Israeli television, President Clinton spoke publicly, for the first time, of his desire to provide aid for Lebanon. He noted “We also want to try to help the government of Lebanon to strengthen its ability to control south Lebanon and to make progress toward a more normal existence.”

  • Even with the bi-partisan support of some friends in Congress and now the apparent support of the President there is still strong opposition to aid to Lebanon from some elements of the far-right wing in Congress.

    1. In this context it is important to consider the efforts of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s sub-committee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) recently held controversial hearings on Lebanon, which turned into an anti-Syrian assault featuring only two speakers, a former SLA official and the head of an anti-Arab, anti-peace think tank. The hearings said little about helping Lebanon and instead focused on attacking Syria.

      In fact, one conclusion of the hearing was the observation that since Lebanon is “under Syrian control,” no aid should be offered to the government of Lebanon because it would only reward Syria.

      While that view is a minority position held only by extremists in the Congress, it remains a factor to be considered in all assessments of what is possible with regard to aid to Lebanon.

    The effort to secure assistance for Lebanon was initially spearheaded by Arab Americans who continue to press both the Administration and Congress to help that country. They have continued to remind U.S. policy makers that for too long Lebanon has remained an after-thought–it is only noticed in a crisis and then forgotten in the aftermath. Lebanon’s needs, they argue, should be addressed on their own merits and the country should receive the aid it requires this year.

    ***

    A note on Jerusalem, “unilateral actions” and the Republican and Democratic Party platforms

    In a thinly veiled attempt to assist Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak survive a no confidence vote in the Knesset, President Bill Clinton broke a seven and one-half year silence on Jerusalem. In an interview with Israeli television on July 28, the President said,

      “You know, I have always wanted to move our embassy to West Jerusalem. We have a designated site there. I have not done so because I didn’t want to do anything to undermine our ability to help to broker a secure and fair and lasting peace for Israelis and for Palestinians. But in light of what has happened, I’ve taken that decision under review and I’ll make a decision sometime between now and the end of the year on that.”

    In commenting further on the complexity of the Camp David discussions on Jerusalem, the President noted:

      “But I kept telling the Palestinians, and I will say again to the world, that you cannot make an agreement over something as important as a city that is the holiest place in the world–to the Jews, to the Christians and to the–one of the holiest places in the world to the Muslims–if it is required of one side to say I completely defeated the interest of the other side. If either side gets to say that at the end, there won’t be an agreement. There can’t be.”

    While U.S. officials insist that the President broke no new ground with his comments, they created an uproar in the Arab world. The Administration officials observed that since the “Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act” requires that the President must reissue his waiver every six months, his comments that he would do so by the end of the year were merely a statement of fact.

    Nevertheless, many Arabs viewed the President’s remarks as an implied challenge. Also viewed negatively were some of the President’s comments regarding the possibility that the Palestinians might declare an independent state unilaterally on September 13. In his interview he observed:

      “I think there should not be a unilateral declaration. And if there is, our entire relationship will be reviewed, not confined to that…. I think it would be a big mistake to take a unilateral action and walk away from the peace process. And if it happens, there will inevitably be consequences–not just here, but throughout the world, and things will happen. I would review our entire relationship, including, but not limited to that.”

    Both topics found their way onto the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties this month.

    The Republican platform was the more aggressive of the two. With regard to Jerusalem the Republicans repeat the position of their presidential candidate George W. Bush when they state, “The United States has a moral and legal obligation to maintain its Embassy and Ambassador in Jerusalem. Immediately upon taking office, the next Republican president will begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.”

    On the issue of a Palestinian state the Republicans’ observe, “A unilateral declaration of independence by the Palestinians would be a violation of that commitment [the peace process]. A new Republican administration would oppose any such declaration. It will also do everything possible to promote the conclusion of a genuine peace in the Middle East. While we have hopes for the peace process our commitment to the security of Israel is an overriding moral and strategic concern.”

    The Democrats, ignoring the recommendations made by Arab Americans, repeated the Jerusalem language of their 1996 platform. They make no mention of moving the U.S. embassy, but note “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”

    With regard to the Camp David summit and the concern that Palestinians make a unilateral declaration of statehood, the Democrats issued a more moderate platform statement. “The recently-held Camp David summit, while failing to bridge all the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians, demonstrated President Clinton’s resolve to do all the United States could do to bring an end to that long conflict. Al Gore, as president, will demonstrate the same resolve. We call on both parties to avoid unilateral actions, such as a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, that will prejudge the outcome of negotiations and we urge the parties to adhere to their joint pledge to resolve all differences only by good faith negotiations.”

    For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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