Posted on April 28, 1997 in Washington Watch

The future of the Middle East peace process hangs in the balance awaiting action by the Clinton Administration. It is clear that without pressure from the U.S. the process is at a standstill and may collapse.

There is a great deal of discussion in Washington about what the Administration can or will do. A few weeks ago there was some talk of a dramatic U.S. initiative. That talk has diminished somewhat due to Netanyahu’s insistence that there be no compromise on the Jabal Abu Ghnaim settlement and the Palestinian refusal to accept anything else than a cessation of construction at that site .

The Israeli Prime Minister’s recent legal troubles have cast an additional All over the process. He has emerged from the crisis emboldened but weakened. Netanyahu appears now to be more indebted to the far right of his coalition and, therefore, not at all inclined to any new initiatives that might require compromise.

While distressed at this turn of events, many U.S. officials, even those known to be pro-Israel, are privately speaking with impatience about the Prime Minister. Some even warn of an impending clash between the U.S. and Israel.

Despite acknowledgement that it will require such a confrontation, it is unclear whether or not the Administration will risk such a clash, especially given its domestic U.S. electoral and political repercussions. And even if the Administration finds the political will to directly challenge the Likud policies, the story will not end there. Any challenge this Democratic President poses to Israel will be met by a hostile confrontation with the Republican-led Congress.

The ability to use Congress as a lever against Administration pressure has always been a key aspect of Israel’s U.S. strategy. This has been true whether the two branches of government were of the same party or not. It is especially true now when this Republican leadership is so wedded to the Likud party and its policies.

Historical examples abound. During the Gulf War, when President George Bush pressed Israel to defer to the U.S.-led coalition effort against Iraq and not take any unilateral actions, Shamir was outraged. In an Israeli press interview Shamir was reported to have said that he found the U.S. Administration’s pressure to be unacceptable and threatened to use “our friends in Congress” against Bush. Many believe that it was this that led to the clash over the loan guarantees.

Similarly, before his first visit to the U.S. after being elected Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu was advised to court Congress against the Administration as a way to ward off any Administration pressure that might be placed on his government.

Israel’s leaders can make such threats or develop such strategies because of the influence that pro-Israeli groups exercise on Congress. Their sway over Congress is a function of well-developed (and, I feel, overrated) perception they have created that they can defeat any candidate who turns against them.

Using intimidation they have been able to use Congress to limit Administration flexibility or even to impose their own foreign policy initiatives in the Administration—as they did in 1995 with the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act.

So as the Administration and public debate the next steps to take in the peace process, pro-Israel groups and their allies in Congress are quietly orchestrating an effort that will further Israel’s aims and further damage the search for Middle East peace.

As in recent years, this Congressional assault is taking place on three fronts: increasing aid to Israel above the allotted $3 billion in military and economic aid; place new restrictions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians; and pass other legislative initiatives that will serve Israeli policy objectives.

Some add-ons to Israel’s aid occur as a result of agreements that Israel has reached with the Administration. In other instances, Congressional initiatives are responsible for cutting special programs or benefits for Israel. In different years these have included: a U.S.-Israel Science and Technology program funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce; a program funded by the Department of Agriculture; hundreds of millions in special Defense Department joint programs: special add-ons for Soviet Jewish refugees; and a bizarre extra bonus to help Israel create a foreign aid program of its own.

What is interesting about these Congressionally driven add-ons is how easily they are accepted and passed, despite Congressional concerns with balancing the overall budget. Very few opposition voices are ever heard regarding Israeli add-ons. Some members support these projects hoping to gain additional support for the pro-Israel Jewish community; some support these efforts out of the fear that if they do not, these same forces will turn against them; and some, actually do support these programs because they are deeply committed to Israel and believe that they are doing what must be done to support another country. Most members of Congress, however, simply accept these power plays by the supporters of Israel and allow them to pass because they accept their passage as inevitable and absent any counter pressure they feel powerless to stop them.

In total during the past two years those add-ons have yielded over $1.2 billion in extra U.S. assistance to Israel.

While increasing aid on the Israeli side beyond the $3 billion allotted, there are also efforts underway in Congress to either suspend aid to the Palestinians or to add more restrictions to their $75 million aid package.

There have been repeated efforts to block Palestinian aid ever since the program was first announced four years ago. This year’s effort may be the strongest to date.

In previous years the Administration has weighed in heavily to protect the Palestinian aid program and they were supported by the labor-led government of Israel. Both would vouch for the Palestinian’s need and support the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to comply with the peace accords.

This year the Administration’s efforts will most likely be met with strong Congressional opposition and support for the government of Israel can not be guaranteed. It is also not clear whether or not the pro-Israel lobby will support Palestinian aid if the Likud-led government of Israel is opposed to continuing the program.

The right wing and pro-Likud supporters in Congress appear to be in no mood to listen to either the Administration or supporters of the peace process. They have for weeks been echoing Israeli charges that Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat gave a “green light” to terrorism. Based on this charge many members of Congress are calling for a suspension of the Palestinian aid program.

Currently a number of letters are circulating in Congress collecting endorsements calling on the President to suspend Palestinian aid. Last week Republican Majority Leader Newt Gingrich asked a Republican member of the House International Relations Committee to propose legislation calling for further restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority.

It is still possible that the Administration will prevail in its effort to convince Congress to continue the Palestinian programs—but it will be a difficult battle.

If these battles to increase Israeli aid and cut or further restrict the Palestinian program were not enough to present a great challenge for the Administration and supporters of Middle East peace, there are other initiatives that may pose even more difficult threats ahead.

Some members are actually proposing punitive aid cuts against Egypt because of what they term “its obstructionist role in the peace process” and to punish Egypt’s leaders for not speaking out against anti-Israel cartoons that have appeared in Egypt’s newspapers!

Should the hitherto sacrosanct Egyptian aid package be tampered with, this would cause the Administration and the peace process a serious problem.

At the same time, not satisfied with the damage they have done by legislating moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, some members have succeeded in further complicating the problem. Since the Administration has used a “national security waiver” to stall the Embassy move, Congress is intent on forcing the Administration’s hand with more punitive legislation. In an amendment added to the State Department Authorization Bill (the legislation that funds all State Department activity) Congress is now proposing that: $25 million of the State Department budget in 1998 must be set aside for the Jerusalem Embassy construction; that none of the State Department funds can be spent in the Jerusalem consulate unless the consulate is brought under the direct supervision of the U.S. Ambassador to Israel; and that the State Department can not spend monies on any publication which lists countries and their capitals unless they state that Jerusalem is the capitol of Israel.

What Israel’s supporters in Congress hope to accomplish with such efforts is to press the Administration to bend further in Israel’s direction and to back off against any pressure against the Likud government.

The battleground for Middle East peace is as much here in Washington and the Congress as it is in the Middle East. It is clear from recent polls that the U.S. public would not support such Congressional antics, but absent a major campaign to inform the public and challenge the Congress, the efforts of the pro-Israel forces will do their damage. The Administration will fight back and Arab Americans and allies of the peace process will fight as well—but the battle requires an informed and outraged public if it is to be won.

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