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Ha'aretz, Tuesday, November 9, 1999

Uncle Sam as an Automatic Teller Machine

By Nitzan Horowitz


WASHINGTON - "Ladies," United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan politely wrote to Ruth and Nadia Matar of the Women in Green movement, in response to their warning that Uncle Sam was committing a cardinal sin in providing assistance in the context of the Wye memorandum, "while I do appreciate your concern for the state of my soul, I would commend to you the wisdom of my departed friend, Menachem Begin, God rest his heroic soul, who once told me that 'I will never give an American legislature an excuse to vote against a request of any Israeli government' ... May I also mention that the last time Jews residing in the Holy Land involved outside powers in their internal disputes, the Romans ended up destroying the very city they had been invited to protect.".Moynihan, together with several hundred members of both houses of the U.S. Congress, is supporting congressional ratification of the current $1.9 billion American aid package to Israel. The propaganda of the right is only one of the obstacles preventing the transfer of the funds, because both the Clinton administration and the Republican majority in Congress have cynically and manipulatively established a link between aid to Israel and their political struggle.

The first conclusion that can be drawn from this affair is that the era of Uncle-Sam-as-automatic-teller-machine is over. Those who are visualizing the agreements with Syria and Lebanon and the final status agreement with the Palestinians in terms of tens of billions of dollars would do well to wake up from this pipe dream. The Wye crisis is a clear warning signal regarding the present mood in Washington. The lobbyists of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) can tell Ehud Barak about the sour faces that can be seen in Congress, especially after the prime minister has taken it for granted that the American legislature will keep on funding the peace process. The battle over Wye has made it crystal clear that President Bill Clinton promised a generous financial aid package without first reaching an agreement with Congress, and that Congress is going to find it difficult to funnel more money into the financial suction pump that goes under the name of the peace process.

Foreign aid has never been a popular item in the United States, especially not among the members of the present Congress and especially not in an election year, when the central plank in the GOP's platform is reduced taxes.

The Congress and the new administration that will be in place in Washington by January 2001 might change that picture. Any change, however, will be dependent on two unknown factors: the total funding that will be needed and the state of the American economy. In the meantime, one can only dream about the mammoth figures that Barak is thinking about in connection with such items as the withdrawal from the Golan Heights, compensation for Palestinian refugees and the solution of Israel's water shortage problem. The Americans are now stating in highly explicit language that "our Middle Eastern friends" will have to look elsewhere for most of the money that is needed.

The second conclusion that can be drawn is a need to abandon a traditional fixation with the other components of American foreign aid. Israel, which has always received the largest chunk of this aid, must work hard to avoid giving the impression that the assistance it receives is at the expense of the starving in Africa or the refugees in Kosovo. Israel must see the entire picture as the administration in Washington sees it, and must mobilize its influence in Congress on behalf of international causes. What is needed is not that Israel play little-goody-two-shoes purely for public relations purposes, but rather that it adopt a sober-minded international perspective that takes into account both American public opinion and Washington's relations with other countries.

The third - and perhaps the most important - conclusion relates to Israel's perception of its relationship with the United States. The Wye crisis has again proven - this time with enormous thrust - that the only way to achieve firmly rooted relations with America is to invest time and energy in establishing a solid relationship with Congress. The president is sometimes superficially understood to be the true representative of Washington. This may have been the impression of some of Jerusalem's new decision-makers, but it is an optical illusion that can have grave implications. Although the president is the head of state in the American system of government, Congress has massive political clout, far greater than the clout of most parliaments in countries with that form of government.

Israel enjoys a unique status in Congress and receives the assistance of true professionals, namely, the members of the Jewish lobby. This is an asset that has no parallel in the international arena. Countries that are far more important than Israel would love to have even a few grains of the influence that Israel has on Capitol Hill. Against this background, it is difficult to understand why Congress was ignored from the very start of the Wye affair, when it became apparent that the Wye assistance package had not been included in the budget proposal that the White House had presented. An immediate response should have been mounted to counter the initial messages churned out by right-wing propagandists. Instead, action was delayed for an incredibly long time because of the position of left-wing Jewish organizations.

Sensitivity is needed in order to prevent the Wye assistance package from becoming the victim of America's current partisan war. The source of Israel's strength in Washington stems from the fact that there is almost total consensus toward Israel - a consensus that transcends partisan boundaries. This strength is also an Achilles' heel, however: Israel must never take sides in partisan warfare. Instead, Israel must simultaneously work all corners of the political arena in Washington - and not just in crisis situations. The special relationship with Congress requires great expertise in American politics and plenty of legwork in the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, as well as in more distant settings.

The congressional wing of the Israeli Embassy in Washington needs reinforcements. Much greater coordination must be reached with AIPAC and with American Jewish organizations at large, and this coordination must be based on the recognition that these heavyweight bodies have their own special strategies.

In general, there is the need for true Israeli understanding, founded on gratitude and respect, of a wonderful phenomenon - the American Jewish community. The undercurrents of that community, the cultural challenges that determine its outlook and the complex manner in which it participates in American society constitute a real key that can be used to have an influence on both Congress and American-Israeli relations

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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