December 5, 2002
Extra Israel Aid: No Slam Dunk
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill say they can't wait to prove their friendship for Israel. They'll get their chance when the new Congress convenes in January, but some may wish they could take a pass.
The test will come when lawmakers take up a huge new aid request Israeli officials presented to administration officials last week. Israeli newspapers say winning the multibillion-dollar package of grant aid and loan guarantees will be a political slam dunk, but veteran pro-Israel activists tell a different story.
In fact, much of this week's aid talk may be political playacting intended to give a boost to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his reelection bid, not to produce real shekels in the Israeli treasury.
First, the numbers: Unconfirmed reports suggest Israel is asking for up to $10 billion, with most of that being in the form of loan guarantees, but also including up to $4 billion in extra military aid. The totals are huge, but few in Washington take them seriously.
Traditionally, Israeli officials begin arduous aid negotiations with high-ball figures, then negotiate down. The numbers may also be inflated by Israeli politics; recent leaks may be calculated to show that Sharon, running hard for reelection next month, is best able to manage relations with Israel's top ally and boost the country's battered economy.
The Bush White House, satisfied with Sharon's leadership, has publicly signaled a willingness to talk about the new aid, especially since any aid package won't hit Congress until long after Israeli voters make their choice.
But there's no assurance the administration will even bring an aid request to Congress -- or that lawmakers will act in a timely fashion.
The next Congress will face unprecedented budgetary pressures because of the recession, Bush administration tax cuts, escalating homeland security costs and the enormous price tag of fighting a worldwide war against terrorism.
A war against Iraq could cost up to $200 billion, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office estimate.
With painful cuts in domestic programs as a backdrop, new foreign-aid spending will face particularly tough scrutiny.
President George W. Bush's administration is said to be sympathetic to Israel's new request, but there is a wide gap between sympathy and spending. That was evident in this year's White House decision to yank $200 million in extra Israel aid from an emergency appropriations bill because of a dispute over spending.
Lawmakers are loathe to vote against aid for Israel, but many, facing voters worried about things like Social Security and Medicare, may be perfectly happy to drag out the debate for years.
Loan guarantees, in which Washington backs up loans from private lenders so Israel can borrow at favorable rates, will be an easier sell because Israel has always paid back its loans on time and because only a fraction of the face value of the loan has to be set aside as a guarantee.
Depending on how the guarantees are structured, they may not technically add to the federal deficit.
But those dollars must still be approved by Congress; with Congress facing a genuine budget emergency, that could produce significant discomfort on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. war on terrorism and the administration's desperate hunt for allies in the fight against Iraq will also produce a line of Middle Eastern countries looking for military aid, loan guarantees and other forms of assistance.
Indeed, Israeli officials say their extra shot of aid and loan guarantees could be part of a regional package tied to the Iraq conflict. But when all the requests are added up, Congress and the administration may suffer from serious sticker shock.
The administration has also made it clear it wants to shift the focus of U.S. aid to democracy-building, especially in the Middle East. That could add to the competition for scarce aid dollars. Israel's current aid is not in jeopardy, but new aid will require an extraordinary lobbying effort and genuine political courage by Israel's newest friends in Congress.
Conservative leaders like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have been trying to portray themselves as more reliable friends than the liberal Democrats, whose ranks include some strong critics of Israel.
But those new friends have never had to take political risks to prove their friendship. It's one thing to pass nonbinding "sense of the Congress" resolutions supporting Israel, something very different to cough up extra money for Jerusalem during a time of budgetary crisis at home.
The big new aid request will also give the Bush administration powerful new leverage in areas where there have been disagreements between the two allies.
That includes the always-contentious issue of Jewish settlements, which held up loan guarantees during the first Bush administration, as well as administration demands that Israel ease restrictions on the Palestinians.
In Israel, newspapers speak of the new aid package as almost a done deal; in Washington, pro-Israel activists are hunkering down for what is likely to be a long and grueling battle.