House OKs aid to Israel, but fence bill reveals rift

washington | As the U.S. House of Representatives continues to refine its positions on the Middle East, support for Israel remains strong — but divisions are beginning to show.

On July 15, the House passed its annual foreign aid appropriations bill, giving Israel $2.2 billion in military aid and $360 million in economic aid. House members shot down a proposal to change some of Egypt’s annual aid from military assistance to economic aid and a measure to cut aid to the Palestinians because of continuing terrorist attacks.

At the same time, 45 legislators voted against a bill denouncing the International Court of Justice’s July 9 ruling against Israel’s West Bank security barrier, the largest nay vote on a pro-Israel congressional measure in recent years.

In an election year in which pro-Israel sentiment has become a major campaign theme for Republicans, the votes gave House members additional opportunities to voice their support for the Jewish state and one of its more significant — but controversial — efforts to stop terrorist attacks.

Unlike previous pro-Israel resolutions in Congress, the votes came with little advance warning and little lobbying from Jewish organizations.

Because some of the provisions went further than the standard expressions of support for the Jewish state, they encountered more opposition.

The ICJ legislation, which passed 361-45 with 13 members voting merely “present,” condemns the U.N. court for its non-binding opinion last week, which called the fence “illegal” and ordered Israel to dismantle it.

The House bill deplores the misuse of the ICJ “to infringe upon Israel’s right to self-defense.” It also lays out an expansive rationale for the fence, which at points juts past Israel’s pre-1967 boundary into the West Bank.

The bill urges all countries to join the United States in preventing exploitation of the ICJ ruling, a slap at a Palestinian-sponsored resolution currently under consideration in the United Nations.

“It is appalling to see how the United Nations forced this recent judgment by the International Court of Justice,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). “Not only did the issue of the non-binding opinion last week state that Israel should remove its security fence, but the judges placed into question Israel’s right to defend herself.”

Republicans highlighted the fact that 20 percent of Democrats did not vote for the ICJ bill. Sources said Democratic leaders were not happy with the bill’s language, and didn’t try as hard as usual to get party members on board.

Several members of the Democratic caucus believe the bill went too far by almost endorsing the controversial fence, and Democratic leaders’ efforts to tone down the language didn’t win support from some party members.

“I have personally witnessed the very severe hardships it imposes on Palestinian life,” Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) said of the fence. “A fence on the Green Line is one thing. That makes sense strategically and demographically. But a separation barrier that winds its way through the West Bank, appropriating Palestinian land in its wake, is not acceptable.”

Lawmakers rejected an amendment to the foreign aid bill that would have converted $570 million in military aid to Egypt to economic aid. Sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo.), the legislation faced opposition from several staunch pro-Israel advocates, including Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles).

Lantos suggested that Egypt doesn’t need the military aid because it doesn’t face a military threat from its neighbors, but does need economic assistance.

“The biggest threat to Egyptian stability is its bloated military budget, which undermines economic and educational development and democratization,” Lantos said. “In fact, if we enhance our support for economic and social projects in Egypt, our credibility with the Egyptian people will soar.”

But many lawmakers disagreed, arguing that while Egypt’s record is suspect — its government-sponsored media is often fiercely anti-Semitic, and it has breached its peace treaty with Israel by refusing to keep an ambassador there since the Palestinian intifada began — its recent willingness to help stabilize the Gaza Strip after an Israeli withdrawal makes it the wrong time to chastise Egypt.

Republicans handed out a letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell, suggesting that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship depended on military assistance to Egypt.

“A transfer of funds from the military assistance account to the economic assistance account will damage the credibility of our bilateral relations at a very sensitive moment in the region, one that has witnessed Egyptian engagement in and support of our regional objectives,” Powell wrote.

The amendment failed, 131-287.