Posted on October 25, 1999 in Washington Watch

It is still possible that this session of Congress will end without serious damage being done to the Middle East peace process and U.S. foreign policy in the region. But it won’t happen without a struggle.

The battle is taking place on a number of fronts. In the past few weeks, the usual alliance of rightwing pro-Israel members of Congress and pro-Likud lobbyists have teamed up to: eliminate from the proposed budget for fiscal year 2000 the monies the President promised to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan as part of the Wye Agreement; insert new regulations that recognize Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem; and place new requirements on the Palestinians.

The battle has, for the most part, become intensely partisan. This year’s foreign aid bill, for example, was almost defeated. The 215 for-213 against vote on the bill was along party lines. Democrats, including all of the 21 Democratic Congressmen who are Jewish, voted against the bill–because it did not include the Wye Aid funding.

The Republicans, who supported the foreign aid bill without Wye aid, and the pro-Likud groups who worked with them, argued against the Wye money in two ways. Some complained that the United States shouldn’t have forced Israel into making more land concessions to the Palestinians. Their opposition to the funding was, therefore, an effort to frustrate the agreement itself. One group that lobbied against the bill described Wye as forcing Israel ‘to make an appalling risk for peace” and described Wye aid as, therefore, “a flagrant misuse of American tax dollars.”

Other conservative members of Congress argued that the increased aid would come at the expense of domestic social programs. One shocking and bigoted display of this line of argumentation came from the powerful Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who decried what he described as “Every time somebody walks into the White House with a turban on his head…the President gets a glass of wine, gives it to the king or whoever he is talking to…and they clink those glasses together and the President says ‘Let me give you a little bit of money.’”

The battle was quite fascinating to watch because it pitted both Republicans against Democrats and pro-Likud Jewish groups against pro-peace Jewish organizations–exposing a growing rift in what had, a decade ago, been seen as a unified community.

When the final bill passed the Congress, without Wye aid, the President promptly vetoed it and sent it back for reconsideration. In his veto message, the President stated “It is shocking that the Congress has failed to fulfill our obligations to Israel and its neighbors as they take risks and make difficult decisions to advance the Middle East peace process…. This sends the worst possible message to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians about America’s commitment to the peace process.”

At this point, a full press is on with Arab American groups and most of the mainstream Jewish organizations working together to secure the aid package. The package, though unfairly stacked in Israel’s favor, does provide a much needed $400 million for the Palestinian Authority and $300 million for Jordan. It appears likely that when the renegotiated bill goes back to President Clinton, Wye aid will be included.

Simultaneous with this battle, some members of Congress succeeded in inserting Jerusalem language in the State Department appropriations bill. The inserted provisions call on the Administration to place the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem under the control of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. Another provision requires that Jerusalem be noted as the “capital of Israel” in official U.S. publications.

Two other provisions–one requiring U.S. passports of individuals born in Jerusalem, read “Jerusalem, Israel” and another authorizing $50 million to begin construction of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem–were both removed from the bill.

At this point, it is not clear what the final resolution of the two remaining provisions will be. The White House has stated that it opposes both stipulations. But it is not certain that the President will veto the entire bill solely on the basis of these two provisions.

It should be noted that since the provision calling for the consulate in Jerusalem to be placed under the Tel Aviv Embassy only states “should” and not “must”–some argue that it can pass and be ignored and not implemented by the White House.

A final issue to be resolved by congressional negotiations is the matter of the waiver that allows the PLO to operate an office in Washington, DC and to secure visas for its officials to come to the United States.

It will be recalled that the United States still has on the books a 1980s era law that forbids the PLO from operating in the United States. Instead of removing this law after the Oslo Accords, Congress, at the behest of U.S. pro-Israel organizations, merely granted a temporary waiver. Since the waiver must be reissued periodically, some groups have used this opportunity to add new requirements on the PLO before granting an extension. This year the Democrats have been fighting a Republican effort to place yet another new restriction on the organization–the added requirement states that if the Palestinian Authority unilaterally declares an independent state–the waiver is cancelled.

It appears certain that this new anti-Palestinian effort will fail and the existing waiver provision will be extended–but not without a fight.

All of this, however, points out the rather bizarre antics that now characterize Washington politics. The combination of election-year partisanship and Middle East policy–especially in the face of a deeply divided pro-Israel lobby–makes for a rather intense and complicated picture. While the battle for Wye aid may be won, and the other hostile congressional intrusions into U.S. diplomacy may be defeated, it is clear that the Administration’s ability to maneuver and secure additional support for future peace agreements will be limited. This will certainly make it difficult for the Administration to provide any new aid as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace package. This of course, will seriously complicate those negotiations–which is precisely what the Likud lobbyists and the Republican isolationist allies seek to accomplish. The short-term battle may be won, but the longer-term war is far from over.

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