In what some observers are describing as a campaign to shore up Jewish electoral support, congressional Democrats are blasting the White House for allegedly pressuring Israel to cease construction of its West Bank security fence.
Thirty-one congressmen, all but two of them Democrats, signed on to a recent letter blasting administration officials for suggesting, in a New York Times report, that the United States might cut loan guarantees to Israel as a penalty for constructing the fence. Several key Democratic congressmen, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, signed the letter, which was organized by Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat.
The August 5 letter warned the administration against taking “a position or action which would jeopardize the security” of Israeli citizens. The White House was also criticized by the House minority whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who last week led a Democratic delegation to Israel. He said that the delegation, whose trip was sponsored by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would probably speak out on the issue next month, once Congress is back in session.
Lowey and her allies said that they were motivated by a desire to repel any undue pressure from the administration on Israel. Republican critics and several observers, however, said that the Democratic lawmakers were seizing on an opportunity to challenge President Bush’s foreign policy credentials and reverse any gains that he has made with Jewish voters. Several Democratic supporters of the peace process, however, have defended Bush’s role in kick-starting negotiations, and warned that attempts to undermine him could harm efforts to advance the American-backed road map peace plan.
“I do not believe George Bush is going to sell out Israel and I think we’re in a delicate political situation at this point… and so I have refrained from signing letters like this,” said Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
“I don’t agree with every single thing they [the Bush administration] do but I think this is a case where the administration is playing a constructive role,” Frank said. “I think the goal they have set out is the best one and it’s very much in Israel’s interest. Being able to set out a two-state solution, if possible, is very much worth the effort and at this point having everyone believe that Bush is in charge of this is very helpful.… I’m ready to defer and not undercut his influence or say to people in the Middle East that you can appeal the Bush administration.”
House Democrats who signed the letter countered that it was important to send a clear signal to the administration that Israel should not be penalized for taking justifiable security measures.
“There is no question that there have to be compromises and there is no question that the U.S. wants to strengthen [Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud] Abbas,” Lowey told the Forward. “But I still feel the bottom line is that Israel knows what’s best for its defense, especially when it comes to protecting its people from suicide bombings.”
Lowey said that she wasn’t opposed to the administration conveying its views to Sharon. “But if there are discussions that have to take place on boundaries, it should be through the next step of negotiations,” Lowey said. “You don’t deal with them through leaks in The New York Times. You deal with them in private.”
The letter was signed by two Republicans, Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Florida, and praised by the Orthodox Union.
Republicans critics, however, accused Democrats of attempting to scare Jewish voters. “The Democrats are trying to play off of fear and they’re trying to take the bloom off of what is a historically strong relationship with this White House,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Israel reacted with restraint, not alarm, to media reports on the alleged threat because the news was nothing more than an unsubstantiated leak that was refuted by the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, Brooks said.
It is just as likely, countered Gene Burger of the Israel Policy Forum, that Democratic attacks on the administration provided Jerusalem with the luxury of keeping quiet. Still, Burger added, political considerations factored into the decision to criticize Bush.
“Liberals will vote Democrat, regardless, and hardliners can be won by putting yourself farther to the right, and so it becomes a competition,” said Burger. “I don’t think a lot of them relish signing on to these things, but it depends on who their constituencies are. If you have a significant number of activist Jews, then you’re likely to err on the side of the hard-liners than the folks who represent sparsely Jewish districts.”
Democrats said that it was the Republicans who had been attempting to politicize Israel-related issues in Congress. Critics noted that during his recent trip to Israel, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had urged Israeli lawmakers not to agree to any territorial concessions, essentially staking out a more hawkish position than Prime Minister Sharon.
“The Democrats are strongly supportive of Israel, and this support is and should be nonpartisan, and the Lowey letter is just another manifestation of strong support for Israel,” said David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Loan guarantees represent a key pillar of this bipartisan support, and congressmen oppose them being used in any way to restrict Israeli security measures, said Zahava Goldman, a spokeswoman for Rep. Henry Waxman of California, whose office helped circulate the letter. “In the middle of recess we had a quick turnaround because we were surprised to see something like security put into the mix on guarantees,” said Goldman.
“It’s politically outrageous,” said Matt Dorf, a partner with Rabinowitz Media, a Washington-based consulting and public affairs firm that works with Democrats and Jewish groups. “For the first time you’ve used loan guarantees on a security issue.”
Such pressure, however, might be needed to secure an agreement, Frank of Massachusetts said, since the current debate over the route of the fence is as much about a desire on the part of some Israelis to preserve settlements as it is about security. “We do have a problem with the settlements, and Congress did agree with language that said none of [the loan guarantees] can be used for settlements. [T]o ignore the settlements and allow them to grow would be a terrible development.”
Leaders of Americans for Peace Now sent Bush a letter backing the idea of reducing the loan guarantees. The letter, signed by the group’s chairman, Luis Lainer, and chief executive officer, Debra DeLee, stated: “We hope you will make it clear to Israel that the U.S. opposes these ill-advised policies and that settlement-related expenditures — including subsidies and costs of route deviations in the security batter — will be deducted from loan guarantees available to Israel in the coming years.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.