WASHINGTON – Democrats are blasting the prospect that a GOP-led House of Representatives might trim aid to Israel or consider it separately from the rest of the foreign aid budget.
“We have to be fiscally responsible to our own budget, but we have to prioritize, who are the countries that we have the closest relationships and closest strategic needs to continue to further, and Israel is one of them,” Rep. Ron Klein (DFlorida) told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday , arguing against any reduction in funding to the Jewish state.
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“Separating out Israel certainly gives cause, or possible cause, for those people who don’t support Israel and our appropriations and our military and strategic cooperation to target it, to make an example of it,” added Klein, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I don’t think that’s in Israel’s best interest. I don’t think that’s in the United States’ best interest,” he said.
David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, charged that “for America to remain engaged as a world leader, and for the sake of Israel’s security, Congress must fully fund foreign aid and aid to Israel together. As the pro-Israel community has said for decades, the two cannot be separated for a host of reasons.”
Harris referred to Israel aid as the “centerpiece” of the pro- Israel community’s agenda.
“To do any less would threaten the bipartisan support that has been the hallmark of this issue – and risk the future of foreign aid,” he said.
Harris and Klein were responding to comments that incoming Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen made last week to the Post, which raised the prospect of some reductions to Israel aid as part of the budget reductions the new GOP Congress plans to pursue when it comes into office in January.
The chairwoman said that while her own and Republican commitment generally to funding Israel remained strong, “I don’t know what the leadership wants to do in terms of levels of funding. If they say 5 percent across the board for everybody, then that’s the way it is.”
She also suggested that Israel aid could be allocated separately from the general foreign aid basket as security assistance along with that of allies facing similar threats. The general foreign aid budget is seen as particularly vulnerable to new Tea Party-backed members of Congress.
“What we would like to see is that countries that have been hard-hit by natural disasters or hard-hit by thugs that surround them, that those countries will be in a special category,” she told the Post, giving Israel and Haiti as examples of high priority.
A spokesman for Eric Cantor, the incoming GOP House Majority leader who floated a version of that idea before the midterms, said that the issue was how best to secure American national security interests and that of key allies while rooting out waste.
“The issue at hand is not necessarily about process, but rather making the delivery of US foreign aid more targeted to the advancement of US national security goals,” Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring told the Post, adding that the mechanisms would be sorted out by the appropriators.
“It is our intention to work closely with the committees of jurisdiction to ensure that foreign aid continues to protect our allies, including Israel, while safeguarding the interests of US taxpayers,” he said.
Dayspring also said that the current budget plan was to return spending to 2008 levels, but that it “is not a straight across-the-board cut. Instead, the top-line spending will be set at 2008 level, and what constitutes those cuts will be discretionary.”
Some pro-Israel activists have played down the threat that US aid to Israel, which currently stands around $3 billion a year as part of a 10-year agreement signed between the two countries, would be diminished.
“I don’t think it’s a great concern,” said Morrie Amitay, who heads the pro-Israel Washington PAC. “Israel would likely get an exemption [to any cuts] because they have a deal in black and white of what their foreign aid is.”
Amitay thought it was improbable that aid to Israel would get separated out after years of consideration as part of an overall foreign aid package.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has made Israel aid a major focus of its lobbying efforts and has traditionally opposed allocating Israel aid separately, praised Ros- Lehtinen when asked by the Post for a reaction to her comments.
“Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen has always been and continues to be a strong leader on the vital issues surrounding the United States and Israel, as well as an ardent supporter of US foreign aid,” AIPAC spokesman Darren Mackoff said.
But Democrats were much more critical.
“It’s a remarkable statement about what we’re going to see in the 112th Congress when the incoming chair of foreign affairs seems to be willing to renege on our memorandum of understanding on aid to Israel,” said one aide to a Democratic member on the appropriations committee. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because no concrete proposal had been made.
“Israel is facing existential threats from Iran and its terrorist
proxies, and this is no time to be discussing cutting funds to Israel by
any percentage,” the aide said.
Matt Dennis, spokesman for Democrat Nita Lowey – outgoing head of the
foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, which currently
determines the level of Israel assistance – said she was looking to
maintain strong backing for the funding.
“Congresswoman Lowey thinks the bipartisan consensus in support of
Israel is extremely important, and she is hopeful it continues in the
112th Congress,” he said.