Looming Sequestration Cuts Cause Split Among Israel Aid Advocates

AIPAC Pushes for Special Treatment, Others Fear Backlash

Sequester Split: The sequester cuts are threatening to undo a bipartisan consensus about aid to Israel. With major cuts looming, AIPAC, which just held its national conference, is pushing for Israel to be treated differently. But others worry about a backlash.
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Sequester Split: The sequester cuts are threatening to undo a bipartisan consensus about aid to Israel. With major cuts looming, AIPAC, which just held its national conference, is pushing for Israel to be treated differently. But others worry about a backlash.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 13, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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The best outcome for AIPAC and for all pro-Israel activists would be congressional legislation to replace sequestration with an agreed-upon budget plan. Such a plan, pro-Israel activists say, would all but guarantee a full restoration of aid to Israel, thanks to the strong bipartisan support the country enjoys.

Right now, hopes for such a spending deal seem dim. AIPAC, therefore, is not ruling out other options. One option would be specific legislation to restore aid exclusively to Israel. Another, explained a congressional staff member who participated in meetings with AIPAC members, would be having the administration use its power to re-obligate funds from other countries to Israel within the same budgetary account. That process, which is considered to be easier, merely requires that the administration give Congress notification of its plan.

“This is still premature,” the AIPAC source said. But he stressed, “We need to find a way to ensure full assistance,” and he refused to rule out any option for ensuring that aid was restored in full.

Even such a tentative move breaks sharply with AIPAC’s decades-long policy, which underscores the need for foreign aid to many countries as a tool of American power in the world. The rationale for this stance was not spread-the-wealth altruism — it was good politics. Israel’s bipartisan popularity has made it an engine for getting the overall annual foreign aid appropriation through Congress, even garnering support among lawmakers who otherwise might oppose it.

This, in turn, has made aid to Israel popular among the entire community of foreign aid supporters and many of the countries that receive the benefits. Treating Israel as a separate category could strip foreign aid to other nations of one of its strongest shields, and deprive aid to Israel of its broader support in the foreign aid community.

J Street, the dovish pro-Israel group, immediately understood the implications of AIPAC’s rhetorical shift after getting word of the pitch made by AIPAC members on Capitol Hill. Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, told the Forward that “it seems a little tone deaf. We have a unique public perception issue.” He added that congressional aides had told him they were “surprised that some groups — that people from AIPAC — were asking for this.”

In a statement issued soon after the AIPAC mission, J Street warned that any move to separate Israel from the sequestration’s broad cuts would hurt the Jewish state’s interests by appearing to put Israel’s aid needs “above those of the millions of ordinary Americans who are being hurt, or the vital domestic programs that are taking a hit.”

M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer who is currently among the lobby’s harshest critics, wrote on his blog, “Demanding that Israel be exempt from cuts that virtually every American will feel seems so counterproductive as to almost be suicidal.”

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