WASHINGTON — Congress is being urged by a top Jewish public-policy organization to approve the Bush administration’s request for $350 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, even as prominent Jewish lawmakers fight the proposal.
A resolution calling on Congress to “to fund” the aid proposal “in its entirety” was passed unanimously Monday at the annual policy conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coordinating organization that brings together 13 national agencies and 127 local Jewish communities. The resolution was approved a day after Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, told delegates at the conference that the aid package was a good idea.
By Tuesday morning, JCPA members were lobbying on Capitol Hill for the aid package, with the council’s executive director making a direct appeal to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the foreign appropriations subcommittee that must approve the plan.
Most lawmakers in Washington seem supportive of the president’s plan to funnel humanitarian assistance through channels controlled by the newly elected P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas.
But direct aid is being resisted by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and by several Jewish House Democrats widely viewed as opinion leaders on Israel-related matters, including Nita Lowey and Anthony Weiner of New York. Several Jewish Democrats, including Rep. Tom Lantos of California and Shelley Berkley of Nevada, are insisting on stringent conditions that observers say could sink Bush’s plan.
“Members of Congress initially had no real guidance from interest groups on this issue, so they were reacting predictably, treating the Palestinians as if [Yasser] Arafat is still in power,” said M.J. Rosenberg, who heads the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that enthusiastically supports direct aid to the P.A. and that is not a member of JCPA.
Members of Congress “obviously see that there is a new message coming from [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon, but they have not yet seen it coming from the Jewish community in America, which is their constituency,” said Rosenberg, a former congressional staffer and former lobbyist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “So they have to catch up, and hopefully this JCPA resolution will help.”
The council is made up of many major national organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, two major women’s groups, and the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogue unions.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said that while Lowey “respects the JCPA and the work it does, she has serious concerns about direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.”
Some lawmakers who oppose direct aid, Weiner among them, represent districts with relatively large numbers of Orthodox or hawkish Jewish voters.
Several congressional staffers said that the council’s resolution, as well as several developments, is likely to soften any reluctance to approve direct aid.
Congressional sources said that it has become increasingly clear to lawmakers that Israel supports the quick approval of direct aid to the Palestinians. In additoin, lawmakers are increasingly confident that Abbas is dedicated to negotiating with Israel and ending Palestinian violence.
Members of Congress were also reassured by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement that the funds will be earmarked for specific projects. Next week the House International Relations Subcommittee On the Middle East will hold a hearing to review the proposed projects.
The Bush administration is asking Congress for $200 million in emergency aid for the Palestinians, in addition to the $150 million contained in the president’s 2006 fiscal budget. The administration wants the aid to go directly to the P.A., not through nongovernmental organizations, as it did in the past.
The council’s resolution also calls on the administration “to play an active role in helping the parties create conditions that can lead to productive negotiations within the framework” of the road map, the American-led peace plan aimed at establishing a provisional Palestinian state and preparing the ground for final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The unanimous support for the resolution reflected the visible effort at this year’s JCPA plenum to reach broad consensus by avoiding controversy. That effort comes as JCPA and its main funder, United Jewish Communities, are discussing ways to improve coordination between the two national agencies.
In the past, several wealthy UJC philanthropists have complained that the public-affairs council is venturing too far into domestic policy issues, pitting its typically liberal views against the Bush administration’s conservative policies. JCPA officials recently expressed concerns that some of their UJC funding might be in jeopardy because of these tensions.
In an effort this year to avoid divisive issues, JCPA decided not to vote on controversial resolutions opposing proposed cuts to social programs contained in President Bush’s budget, or GOP efforts to ban Senate filibusters on judicial nominees. The council also took a pass on a resolution supporting abortion rights.
For the first time in several years, the UJA-Federation of New York, the country’s largest federation, voted on JCPA resolutions. It had chosen not to vote in recent years, citing its view that JCPA was dealing with divisive domestic issues.
This year, JCPA did approve resolutions calling for sanctions on the Sudanese government in an effort to stop the killing in Darfur, deploring economic sanctions against Israel or companies doing business with Israel, and supporting the granting of asylum to women who are victims of gender violence.
The inclusion of the language supporting aid to the Palestinians in the resolution on Israel was a last-moment development. It started with an off-the-cuff comment made by Mekel, who, at a JCPA forum about the Middle East, was asked about direct aid to the P.A. He replied that in his personal opinion, that would be a good idea, because it would empower Abbas. He asked, “If we can’t trust him with $350 million, what can we trust him with?”
Marc Pelavin, associate director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, brought Mekel’s comments to the attention of JCPA’s Task Force on Israel.
“I told them, ‘If an Israeli diplomat can say that, why can’t we?’” Pelavin said.
Language supporting the aid package was then inserted into the resolution, along with the caveat that all funds are “closely monitored to ensure that assistance reaches the people in need.”
The resolution was blasted by Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, an organization that does not belong to the council and is a leading opponent of concessions to the Palestinians.
“We should demand that any money should be linked explicitly, directly and unequivocally to compliance with their obligations: Dismantle the terrorist organizations, end incitement, close the bomb factories and arrest the terrorists,” Klein said.
Although JCPA made news by supporting direct aid to the Palestinians, the Middle East was far from being the top agenda item at this year’s plenum. Domestic affairs were more prominent.
The need to boost federal funding for social programs was a major theme at discussion forums, and church-state separation was the most intensely discussed issue during the resolutions session.
The resolution that was eventually adopted on religion-state separation — the product of a compromise between the Reform movement and the Orthodox Union — states that “a clear division between religion and state remains the best way to preserve and promote religious rights and liberties.” At the same time, the resolution insisted that “religious institutions and people of faith should play a vital role in public discourse.”
The O.U. failed to strike from the resolution a passage saying: “Even where an increased role of religion in the public square may be judicially interpreted as constitutional, we should continue to oppose changes which we consider detrimental to our core values, the interests of the Jewish community, or the pluralistic nature of our society.”