WASHINGTON — A plug from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has given new life to congressional legislation granting Israel $120 million over five years for energy research and development, Jewish organizational officials said.
The breakthrough on Capitol Hill is being credited to Olmert’s May 24 speech to a joint session of Congress, during which he mentioned American-Israeli cooperation in developing alternative energy sources.
“Israel will increase its efforts to find advanced scientific and technological solutions, designed to develop new energy sources and encourage conservation,” Olmert said. He specifically mentioned the U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act, a bill that Jewish groups have been trying — with little success — to push through Congress for more than a year. The measure would grant $120 million to Israeli scientists so that they can develop alternative energy sources or devise ways to use conventional energy more efficiently.
Communal leaders say that the prime minister’s remarks have energized the efforts of Jewish organizations to push the legislation.
“Olmert’s speech really gave our efforts momentum both on Capitol Hill and within the Jewish community,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The council is a policy coordinating organization that brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local Jewish communities.
Since Olmert’s speech, the JCPA held an initial discussion in a process intended to shape its position on nuclear energy.
Meanwhile, in what is believed to be a first for a nonprofit organization, the AJCommittee is offering bonuses to any of its 200-plus full-time employees who purchase hybrid and other fuel-efficient cars. Depending on the vehicle model, the bonus would be $1,500 or $2,500.
When Olmert spoke to Congress about the joint energy project, the prime minister was cheered. Lobbyists for Jewish groups rushed to make the most of the momentum. Last week, according to Jewish activists, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, promised to sponsor the bill and shepherd it through the Senate once the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has marked it up. Interest in the bill also has increased in the House of Representatives, congressional sources said, where more than a dozen members joined as co-sponsors of the bill in the past three weeks.
In all, the bill now has 82 co-sponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate. Jewish activists expect it to pass both houses before the end of this year.
Although Jewish groups have been deeply involved in attempts to shape America’s energy policy, they have not aggressively mobilized to support or oppose specific energy legislation in recent years. This bill, Jewish activists said, could provide a focus and a cause for the Jewish community on the issue.
“This bill is a small part of a larger effort to get more involved in energy policy,” said Neil Goldstein, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. The organization helped initiate and draft the bill, and now it is taking the lead in pushing for it.
“We believe that what is needed is a project on the scale of a Manhattan Project or an Apollo Project,” Goldstein said. “We believe that this is of such grave consequence for the U.S. and the Western world that it really deserves that kind of attention. Our bill is a very small piece of that.”
Jewish advocacy groups are calling on their members to urge their congressional representatives to support the law. They are also contacting pro-Israel Christian organizations and environmental groups to help them push the legislation.