In Washington: Really helping Israel

The next Congress should become engaged in helping Israel and the Palestinians achieve peace.

m j rosenberg 88 (photo credit: )
m j rosenberg 88
(photo credit: )
One of the reasons Israel is rarely an issue in House and Senate campaigns is that Congress only considers one significant piece of legislation relating to Israel every year. That is the Israel aid package, which is itself part of the overall foreign aid bill. The aid package is of vital importance to Israel, and will be so long as Israel needs to remain in a state of military preparedness. As I.L. Kenen, founder of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), used to say: the aid package is Israel's "lifeline." In his day, achieving passage of the aid bill was a very difficult undertaking. The United States was far more isolationist 30 years ago than it is today, and members of Congress (particularly southerners and Midwesterners) fought hard to defeat foreign aid. As late as 1973 (just prior to the Yom Kippur War), US aid to Israel amounted to just $481 million. Following that catastrophic war, president Richard Nixon requested $2.2 billion for Israel to cover the war's costs. It was a struggle convincing Congress that Israel should receive so large an amount, but the pro-Israel community and its friends in Congress prevailed. The aid package has remained the same size ever since. Actually, it has shrunk. Last year Congress supplied Israel with $2.5b. which, inflation adjusted, is far less than in 1973. And the aid package is no longer controversial. Last year, 32 House members voted against it, and just one senator. Even those opponents who voted "no" did so not out of anger at or disdain for Israel, but because they objected to other aspects of the bill. That is why Israel has not been an issue in Congressional campaigns. Support for it is wide, deep, bipartisan and non-controversial. No one even tries to defeat the bill anymore. Its passage is essentially automatic. ALTHOUGH THE foreign aid vote is the only significant vote relating to Israel, there are also numerous resolutions and other pieces of legislation that come up from time to time. The resolutions are invariably non-binding, and are offered as a way for House and Senate members to demonstrate commitment to Israel. They usually can be summed up like this: "Israel, good. Arabs, bad." For the most part, these resolutions are meaningless, although they do harm a president's ability to portray America as an "honest broker" in the Middle East. Nevertheless, any president who decides to push for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be blocked by a Congressional resolution. Nor would Congress actually try to block a US initiative. The point of these resolutions is not to thwart peace but to score political points; not much should be read into them. By the same token, members of Congress who say they have to be more hawkish than the Likud Party to avoid being "targeted" are exaggerating. They may choose to avoid helping Israel and the Palestinians achieve peace, but they certainly won't lose their seats if they try. As for the 2007 Israel aid package, it will become law before this Congress adjourns without muss or fuss. The fact that aid to Israel has become uncontroversial is a great tribute to the pro-Israel community. We have every right to pat ourselves on the back. But we shouldn't stop there. Now that Israel's support in Congress is universal, and the critical aid package sails through without controversy, it is time to get Congress engaged in the battle to help Israel and the Palestinians achieve peace. Preserving the status quo is no great accomplishment because the status quo has been a disaster for Israel and its neighbors (remember the Lebanon war and the Aksa intifada, which took thousands of lives). Congress needs to help advance an end to the 60-year-old conflict that imperils Israel's survival and costs thousands of lives on both sides. For Israel, that is what friends are for. The last thing Israel needs is for its supposed friends to use it as a political football, scoring partisan points while Israel's position continues to erode. Remember that the next time someone tells you that Senator So-and-So is a "great friend of Israel" and offers as evidence ritualistic statements of "support" that are meaningless and accomplish absolutely nothing. Instead, ask what the senator (or member of Congress) has actually done to promote peace and security for Israel and its neighbors. Has he or she encouraged the president to become personally involved in the diplomatic process? Has he or she encouraged Israel and the Palestinians to come to terms on such issues as mutual recognition, ending terrorism and all forms of violence, and illegal settlement activity? Or has he or she limited their involvement to co-sponsoring one-sided and often downright silly resolutions? If the latter is the case, as it usually is, that senator or representative is not helping Israel at all. It is the job of the pro-Israel community to make Congress understand that. Supporting Israel aid is essential but it is our obligation to demand more. The writer is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.