Changing Congressional Currents on Israel: Two Straws in the Wind

Published January 1, 1990

By Dennis J. Wamsted

Dennis J. Wamsted
Courtesy: The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1989

There has been a gradual, but dramatic, shift in congressional attitudes towards Israel over the past several years – a change that has positive implications for the United States. In years past, Congressional support for Israel was reflexive and unquestioning. Now, perhaps as a result of the more than two-year old Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, Congressional support is some­ what less forthcoming. Two recent developments, one involving a proposed multibillion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the other, a $1.5 million grant to an Israeli school, illustrate these Congressional changes.

An Arms Sale, By George

Prodded constantly by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the rest of the politically powerful pro-Israel lobby, Congress has traditionally frowned upon arms sales to Arab countries other than Egypt. For example, less than a year ago, Reps. Mel Levine (D-CA) and Larry Smith (D-FL) and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-CA), three of Israel’s most vocal supporters in Congress, wrote President elect George Bush to urge that he does not propose any additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia, America’s principal ally in the Gulf region.

“We do not believe that such arms requests are justified,” the three wrote. “Under present circumstances, we would take the lead in Congress to oppose actively an administration request to license export of such a major Saudi arms package. We also do not believe that prompt consummation of such new military sales would advance the Middle East peace process or other vital U.S. interests in the region.” Such a proposal, they warned, would precipitate a “bitter battle” between Congress and the administration.

The Bush administration nevertheless painstakingly crafted a proposal to sell 315 MI main battle tanks and other equipment – worth slightly more than $3 billion – to Saudi Arabia. As part of its proposal, which was officially unveiled in mid-October, the administration prepared a detailed accounting of how the sale would benefit the U.S., while also meeting the Kingdom’s legitimate defense needs.

All told, the sale will generate additional revenue and “man-years” of employment in 40 states, according to information released by the Defense Department. (See accompanying list of 15 states that benefit most.) In addition, the sale will generate nearly $700 million for the budget-conscious federal government. Finally, by enabling the manufacturer, General Dynamics, to produce a larger number of tanks, the sale will reduce the MI’s per unit cost, saving the U.S. Army between $150 million and $180 million.

Out- Lobbying the Lobby

This attention to detail, as well as a series of information meetings with a number of key congressmen, has paid off: The pro-Israel lobby has been uncharacteristically quiet. In­deed, when confronted with this administration onslaught, Reps. Levine and Smith abandoned the heated rhetoric of last winter and adopted a positively statesman­like tone, fashioning a letter to Secretary of State James Baker 3rd asking for additional information about the proposed sale.

“While we would have hoped that there would have been greater consultation with Congress before a decision was reached on the MI sale,” Levine and Smith wrote in their late October letter, “we nonetheless believe there is still an opportunity to address our concerns during this prenotification period. We think this could facilitate the forging of a consensus on this particular sale and hopefully lead to more routinized consultative procedures between the branches on arms transfer policies.” For these two congressmen, who promised in December 1988 “to oppose actively” a sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, to suggest that it is possible to reach a “consensus” on such a sale is virtually unprecedented. Their conciliatory tone suggests that the two congressmen, no slouches in the vote-counting department, realize that they do not have nearly enough votes to derail the proposal. In addition to Levine and Smith, the letter to Secretary Baker was signed by 34 other congressmen.

It is worth noting that during the Reagan administration it was common for hundreds of representatives to sign letters circulated by Levine and Smith opposing proposed sales to Saudi Arabia. In September 1987, for example, Rep. Smith collected well over 200 signatures on a letter to the administration op­ posing a roughly $1.4 billion sale to Saudi Arabia. While some of the falloff since then is undoubtedly attributable to the Bush administrations’ masterful lobbying effort, it is also likely that a significant number of representatives are now less worried about incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby, with its attendant political consequences, by not signing these letters than they were just two years ago.

Misplaced Money

In another development, Reps. David Obey (D-WI) and Lee Hamilton (D-IN), two influential congressmen who play a key role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East, joined forces in mid-October to block a $1.5 million grant by the U.S. Agency for International Development to an Israeli school that trains orthodox rabbis. The grant, which was included in the budget for the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program, had reportedly been arranged by Sen. Robert Kas­ten (R-WI), a vocal supporter of Israel, even though the school – because of its religious orientation – was technically ineligible for the AID funds. Under the terms of the ASHA program as it is currently structured, AID is prohibited from giving assistance that will be used “to train persons for religious pursuits or to construct buildings or other facilities intended for worship or religious instruction.”

In their letter, Obey and Hamilton, who chair the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee and the Foreign Affairs Europe and the Middle East Subcommittee, respectively, urged acting AID administrator Mark Edelman to reform the program. “We… may well object if changes are not made in the coming year,” the two representatives wrote. Although only a 1.5 million grant, Obey and Hamilton’s decision to contest the funding is significant. In years past, when Israel was still the apple of Congress’ eye, it is unlikely that the two representatives would have broached this issue – it simply would not have been worth risking the ire of the pro-Israel lobby.

Facts For Your File:

The following list identifies the 15 states that stand to gain the most from the administrations’ proposed tank sale to Saudi Arabia. All told, these 15 states could reap a $1.3 billion windfall, and maintain or create 40,000-plus man-years of employment, if Congress approves the sale. The senators from these 15 states are also listed. Those marked with an asterisk are up for reelection in 1990.

Courtesy: The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1989

Michigan $387,700,000 12,115 man-years
Sen. Carl Levin (D)* Sen. Don Riegle (D)
Connecticut $200,900,000 6,559 man-years
Sen. Joe Leiberman (D) Sen. Christopher  Dodd (D)
Ohio $148,400,000 4,636 man-years
Sen. John Glenn (D)
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum  (D)
California $124,500,000 3,899 man-years
Sen. Pete Wilson (R) Sen. Alan Cranston (D)
Indiana $121,700,000 3,803 man-years
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) Sen. Dan Coats (R)
Texas $61,500,000 1,770 man-years
Sen. Phil Gramm (R)* Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D)
New York $50,400,000 1,573 man-years
Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) Sen. Alfonse D’Amato  (D)
Pennsylvania $49,200,000 1,537 man-years
Sen. John Heinz (R) Sen. Arlen Specter (R)
Georgia $37,800,000 1,181 man-years
Sen. Sam Nunn (D)* Sen. Wyche Fowler (D)
New Jersey $34,900,000 1,000 man-years
Sen. Bill Bradley (D)*
Sen. Frank Lautenberg  (D)
Illinois $30,800,000 961 man-years
Sen. Paul Simon (D)* Sen. Alan Dixon (D)
Alabama $13,900,000 434 man-years
Sen. Howell Heflin (D)* ;
Sen. Richard Shelby (D)
South Carolina $11,200,000 348 man-years
Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) Sen. Strom Thurmond  (D)*
Massachusetts $11,000,000 343 man-years
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) Sen. John Kerry (D)*
Oklahoma $7,600,000 238 man-years
Sen. David Boren (D)* Sen. Don Nickles (D)
TOTALS $1,300,500,000 40,593 man-years
Source: Department of Defense

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