Hurricane Toughens Fight for Israel Aid

By Ori Nir

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — As the federal government rushes to fund hurricane-related recovery efforts, pro-Israel activists in Washington are worried that Congress will be reluctant to send Jerusalem the $2.1 billion of additional post- disengagement aid that it is requesting.

With New Orleans destroyed and the surrounding region devastated, lawmakers will be hard pressed to explain to their constituents why America is giving billions of dollars to Israel for the economic development of its Negev and Galilee periphery, said pro-Israel activists and congressional sources who are intimately familiar with the budgetary process in Washington.

“Everybody recognizes the huge sacrifices that Israel made in withdrawing from Gaza,” a congressional staffer told the Forward. “But you’re living in a world in which a budget represents choices and tradeoffs. And when we are at a time of serious budget challenges and we have more costs because of this disaster, it makes the tradeoffs harder to make.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the staffer added, “I am not saying that it’s not going to happen — one should never underestimate the influence of the pro-Israeli community — but [the hurricane] doesn’t make it easier.”

Israel is unlikely to drop its request, although it may settle for a smaller package, sources said.

Last week, during an interview with the Israeli Independent Media Review Analysis and service, Prime Minister Sharon’s foreign media adviser, Ra’anan Gissin, said that talks about the aid request are in preliminary stages and no sum had been set. The process for approving aid to Israel, Gissin added, is in no way related to the process of budgeting for Katrina relief.

Israel has not filed a formal request for the aid package, but Israel’s finance minister, Ehud Olmert, presented the issue to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on August 24 by during a special visit to Washington. Rice reportedly did not give Olmert any assurances that the administration would ask Congress for the full amount. But as he came out of the meeting, Olmert told reporters, “I would regard it as very strange if we didn’t get the aid.” Pro-Israel activists recently said that Sharon’s government is asking for the aid as a cash grant, not in loan guarantees.

Late last month, senior members of the House of Representatives who are involved in the budgetary process told pro-Israel activists that the Bush administration probably would ask Congress to fold the Israeli aid request into a special supplemental spending bill to fund military operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Including the aid to Israel in a special war-related spending bill, sources said, could make it easier to sail through Congress. The administration intends to ask Congress early next year to approve the supplemental spending bill by spring.

The fallout from Hurricane Katrina could significantly change the political calculus behind securing the aid, sources said. Congress approved a $10.5 billion emergency hurricane-relief funding bill last week and Bush is already seeking $40 billion more. Under such circumstances, a large economic aid package for Israel, which is not for emergency purposes, may be difficult for legislators to justify to their constituents, sources said.

Pro-Israel activists saw some room for optimism in a new poll showing that most Americans are more supportive of Israel because of the disengagement. According to the poll, commissioned by The Israel Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization that strives to improve Israel’s image in the media, 23% are “much more” supportive and another 33% said they are “somewhat” more supportive.

In addition, 80% — including 64% who said that they strongly agreed — supported the statement that “before Israel makes any more concessions, the Palestinian leaders must disarm Palestinian terrorists.” The poll, conducted between August 29 and August 31 by Public Opinion Strategies, a Washington-based polling firm, was based on interviews with the 629 respondents. The poll’s margin of error was 3.91%.

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