WASHINGTON — Emboldened by the overwhelming congressional vote this month to impose sanctions on Syria, Middle East hawks on Capitol Hill are pushing similar legislation targeted at Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, most observers say the Bush administration appears unlikely to act against either country.
Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, recently introduced a Saudi sanctions bill modeled after the Syria Accountability Act. The bill aims “to halt Saudi support for institutions that fund, train, incite, encourage, or in any other way aid and abet terrorism.” The White House opposes Specter’s bill.
The administration has dropped its earlier opposition to the Syria legislation and the president is expected to sign it when it reaches his desk, but he is widely expected to invoke a waiver allowing him to defer sanctions against Damascus.
The two measures highlight a split between the administration, which still appears dedicated to working with most Arab regimes, and a growing number of lawmakers from both parties who favor a more confrontational approach. Several key Jewish groups are allied with the congressional hard-liners.
“This represents what is an emerging movement in Congress of judging nations by what they do, not by what they say,” said Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, who last week introduced a version of Specter’s bill in the House of Representatives. “That is a welcome change in U.S. policy. It hasn’t started in the White House, but it certainly is taking hold in Congress.”
The Saudi Arabia Accountability Act would require the president to certify that Riyadh is doing its utmost to fight terrorism or slap sanctions on Saudi Arabia. The bill authorizes Bush to take several measures, including prohibiting the export of any military material or defense services to Saudi Arabia, as well as any “dual use” articles that could be used for either civilian or military purposes. The bill would also restrict the travel of Saudi diplomats to a 25-mile radius around the city in which their offices are located. Like the Syria Accountability Act, the Saudi bill grants the president the power to waive any or all of the sanctions for reasons of national security.
The Zionist Organization of America worked closely with Specter in drafting the legislation, according to the group’s president, Morton Klein. But other Jewish groups, including ones that lobbied actively for the Syria sanctions, have not yet taken a public position on the Saudi legislation.
A spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, said the organization was not involved in promoting the Saudi bill.
Jewish groups and their congressional allies, however, are promising to press the White House to act against Damascus. Congress is close to passing a final version of the Syria Accountability Act, which outlines a range of political and economic sanctions to be implemented if Syria fails to end its support for terrorism, continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction and refuses to pull its troops out of Lebanon.
“It is very hard to tell right now what the administration will do, which sanctions they will impose and which they’ll waive, but we’ll definitely be following it very closely to assure that it’s being applied,” said a spokesman for Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who co-authored the Syria Accountability Act.
One pro-Israel activist said that Jewish activists would also be working to see that the bill is not ignored. “On a scale of one to 10, I’d say it’s a 10,” the lobbyist said of the upcoming effort. “You will not necessarily see it publicly, but privately, it certainly will be done.”
Most observers predict that Bush will exercise a presidential waiver allowing him to avoid implementing sanctions, even though the administration dropped its opposition to the Syria bill. The administration’s shift from opposition to tacit support was said to be the main reason why the legislation was fast-tracked through Congress. It passed 89 to 4 in the Senate and 398 to 4 in the House.
The White House’s stance on the recently introduced Saudi bill may hinge upon how closely the Saudi regime is implicated in the support allegedly lent to terrorist groups by certain Saudi individuals and institutions. The administration has criticized the alleged financial ties between Saudi nationals and terrorist organizations, but it considers the regime to be a key ally in the war on terrorism. This view was bolstered by recent counter-terrorism measures Riyadh has taken in the wake of a series of deadly bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia, and is likely to stiffen resistance to any anti-Saudi legislation.
Weiner described the new bill as a “shot across the bow of the Saudis,” and at the same time as a message to the administration. “There is an increasing sense in Congress that the Saudis not only have not been an ally, but that they have fostered our enemy,” Weiner said. According to the New York lawmaker, “the frustration level with the Saudis has reached a fever pitch,” and members of Congress are “in favor of taking some pretty draconian steps against the Saudis.”
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League made its own contribution last week to the push for sanctions, calling on the American government to punish Lebanon until its government “takes action to confront the rampant antisemitism on their airwaves.” In a meeting on Capitol Hill with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, called for the United States to curb its foreign aid package to Beirut, making at least a portion of the funding contingent upon the Lebanese government’s willingness to confront antisemitic content in its media. Congressional staffers described the ADL initiative as a “long shot.”