Congress re-examines foreign aid to Egypt

WASHINGTON — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's failure to condemn anti-Jewish editorials in government-backed newspapers has eroded the historically unified Jewish support for U.S. aid to Egypt.

Together with Egypt's adversarial stance in the Middle East peace process, the unchecked anti-Semitism in Egypt has put at least part of the $2.1 billion in annual foreign aid in danger.

Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, asked members of Congress last week to withhold $100 million from Egypt's aid package until Mubarak publicly condemns anti-Jewish and anti-Israel statements by leading government officials and Egyptian media.

The Egyptian leader's silence "is tantamount to tolerating it or legitimizing it, and even supporting it." Foxman told the House International Relations Committee at a hearing on U.S. policy toward Egypt.

"There must be consequences for such continued disregard, dismissal and, if you will, total indifference."

Egypt has faced a crescendo of criticism from members of Congress and Jewish officials in recent months. In addition to anti-Semitic cartoons in the Egyptian press, Cairo's sponsorship of a recent Arab League resolution encouraging its members to reinstate the Arab boycott of Israel drew sharp condemnation.

"Egypt's leadership role in that vote puzzles and dismays many of its friends in the United States," said Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), the committee's chairman. "The Arab League appears to have taken an unfortunate step backward through the failed politics of confrontation with Israel."

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) indicated that he might call for a vote to cut aid to Egypt when the foreign aid bill comes before Congress later this year.

"The multibillion dollar U.S. aid program to Egypt is not an unchangeable entitlement," Lantos said at the hearing.

"I do not think that the American taxpayer can be expected to continue the level of aid to Egypt that we have undertaken for years in the light of a pattern of policies hostile to U.S. foreign policy interests."

Ever since the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the pro-Israel community has lobbied for U.S. aid to Israel and Egypt as one package.

While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has not endorsed Foxman's initiative, the pro-Israel lobby is considering supporting a cut in aid to Egypt.

"There are a number of initiatives reflective of congressional concern about Egypt's behavior in the peace process," said AIPAC spokeswoman Toby Dershowitz. "All are aimed at sending messages to Egypt."

But not all proposals are punitive.

"The objective must be to change our economic relationship to improve the prospects for economic growth in Egypt," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Given the great strides Egypt has taken in structural reform in recent years, now is the time for us to reshape the $815 million economic assistance package," Satloff said at the hearing.

He said reductions in U.S. economic assistance to Egypt could help "to improve Egypt's prospects for a healthier, sounder economy."

The ultimate decision on whether to seek a cut in Egypt's aid rests with the House Appropriations Committee.

"We're coming to a point where the government of Egypt continues to believe that there are no consequences for its behavior," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) in an interview after the hearing.

"We will explore every avenue," said Lowey, a member of the Appropriations Committee.