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Groups Push U.S.-Israeli Energy Bill

Jewish groups are waging an 11th-hour fight to fund joint American-Israeli projects for the development of renewable energy sources.

The U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act provides grants of up to $20 million a year for joint research and development projects in the fields of renewable energy and alternative energy sources. The legislation was passed by the House of Representatives last summer, but has stalled in the Senate.

Israel and the Jewish community attach great importance to the bill, not only because of the funds it will provide for Israeli research institutions and private sector companies, but also because it is seen as a first step toward putting Israel in the forefront of the alternative energy field. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised the bill in his May 24 address to both chambers of Congress, stressing that the United States and Israel “share a desire for energy security.”

Some observers say that the chances of getting the bill through the Senate before the end of the 109th Congress are slim, but Jewish activists believe that both parties are interested in seeing the measure approved in order to show their commitment for ending America’s dependency on foreign oil.

Pro-Israel activists on Capitol Hill said this week that the bill has not encountered significant opposition, but members of the Senate Energy Committee are dragging their feet. According to the bill’s supporters, some senators are reluctant to approve new spending bills at a time of record federal deficits.

In response to such concerns, the national policy director of the American Jewish Congress, Matthew Horn, argued that the measure would be paid for with money already set aside to the Department of Energy.

“This bill is only old money,” said Horn, who has spent months lobbying for the measure.

Supporters also note that the bill includes a measure requiring beneficiaries of the grant to pay back the money if they develop a new initiative that becomes profitable. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report in June estimating the cost of the bill at $5 million for 2007 and another $75 over the next five years. “Enacting the bill would not affect spending or revenues,” the report states.

Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, and Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, introduced the bill in the House, along with 100 co-sponsors from both parties.

In addition to Olmert’s endorsement, Israeli Minister of Infrastructure Binyamin Ben-Eliezer sent a letter to the Senate Energy Committee’s Republican chairman, Pete Domenici, and to the ranking Democrat on the committee, Jeff Bingaman (both men are from New Mexico), urging them to pass the bill before the term ends. Since the letter was not enough to get the bill out of the committee, the Jewish groups moved into action.

Last week, the AJCongress began circulating an action alert among its supporters, asking them to call their senators and demand that they move the bill. “Tell them that passage of this bill is important to you, and to the entire Jewish community, because it helps the U.S. achieve independence from imported oil from the Middle East and establishes a robust system of U.S. Israel joint research and development on energy alternatives,” the alert reads. Other groups active on the issue include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The JCPA is expected to line up about 15 organizations this week to sign a letter to senators, urging that they pass the bill.

The bill touches on two of the most important issues for the Jewish community — support of Israel and the pursuit of alternative energy sources, an issue that has attracted increased attention from Jewish groups during the past decade. Former CIA director James Woolsey spoke last week at an event in Washington sponsored by B’nai B’rith International, stressing the need to develop alternative sources of energy in order to minimize America’s vulnerability. “Chaos in the Middle East is an absolute banner advertisement for moving away from dependence on oil,” Woolsey said.

A source close to the issue estimated that the bill has “no more than a 10% chance” of passing when Congress convenes for its lame-duck session December 4, since the Senate seems reluctant to take on any new legislation apart from bills that are crucial for government operations. Still, Horn remains optimistic.

“If anything moves in the committee or in the Senate, our bill will move,” the AJCongress official predicted. He added: “The only way to eradicate our dependency on foreign oil is to treat it in the same way we try to eradicate a disease. We need to find the cure.”

In a meeting last week, lobbyists who support the bill said that they sensed bipartisan support for the initiative. “The only question now,” one of the lobbyists said, “is who will get the credit for it.”

If the outgoing Senate can get the bill approved, the Republicans would be credited both for helping Israel and for taking action to promote alternative energy. But, the lobbyist predicted, if the bill dies in committee and is reintroduced in the Democratic-led 110th Congress, the credit would end up going to the Democrats.

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