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The Middle East

Lawmakers Press Bush to Stand Up for Israel

April 10, 2002|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As President Bush comes under growing international pressure to rein in Israel's military offensive against Palestinians, he faces countervailing pressure from an overwhelmingly pro-Israeli Congress where some members are pushing for new statements of support for the country.

As lawmakers returned to work Tuesday after a recess that spanned two weeks of rapidly escalating violence in the Middle East, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) prepared to introduce a resolution expressing U.S. "solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would reintroduce legislation to cut U.S. ties to the Palestinian Authority if Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's mission in the region does not produce results. "The U.S. should stand by Israel's side in the quest for peace and security," Feinstein said in a floor speech.

Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans at a time when some conservatives have questioned the Bush administration's willingness to continue negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Some congressional leaders are struggling to balance their desire to show support for Israel against fears that legislative meddling could upset diplomatic efforts to stabilize the region.

"I think that some show of support for Israel is important and critical," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). But he added, "We need to decide what the correct and appropriate timing would be."

Still, the unflagging congressional support for Israel--even as Israeli leaders have been slow to respond to Bush's personal pleas to end the incursion into Palestinian-governed territory--is a strong reminder of the tremendous influence wielded by the Jewish community and the pro-Israeli lobby in U.S. politics.

That power has its roots, in part, in sympathy for a democratic regime with which the United States has deep cultural and religious ties. The support base spans many faiths, notably evangelical Christian groups.

But the clout also derives from a more direct, practical political reality: The U.S. Jewish community, though only about 2.2% of the U.S. population, is disproportionately represented in big states such as New York, California, Florida and Illinois.

Many Jews also have a track record as major political donors, especially to Democrats. And Jews are well represented in Congress. There are 10 Jewish members of the Senate, for instance, and no Arab Americans.

"They are at the right places to have an impact on overall sentiment," said Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, argued that the political power of the Jewish community is exaggerated. But he conceded that what he terms the "myth" of Jewish clout has suppressed divisions in Congress over Middle East policy.

"There is reasoned discourse [over the Middle East] in almost every sector of society except Congress," Zogby said.

The bipartisan support for Israel was driven home last week when House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas)--viewed by many as the leader of the GOP's conservative wing in Congress--gave a speech denouncing Arafat as "completely untrustworthy." DeLay called on the Bush administration to throw its weight behind Israel's campaign to "dismantle the Palestinian leadership."

With many members of Congress agreeing with that assessment, Cheney sought to build support for Powell's mission by telling Senate Republicans on Tuesday that Arafat was "the only one to negotiate with," according to a GOP source who attended the meeting.

A draft of the resolution Lantos plans to push condemns Arafat harshly and would put Congress on record as backing Israel "as it takes necessary steps to provide security to its people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas."

Some lawmakers were concerned that such a measure would hurt U.S. diplomatic efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table and to calm mounting Arab anger toward the United States over the Middle East crisis.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said Tuesday that he did not think it was appropriate for Congress to act while the situation is in such flux.

"The Congress of the United States ought to exercise a little bit of self-restraint in the way we discuss this," Armey said. "The president is responsible for foreign policy."

And Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), whose district includes a large population of Arab Americans, expressed concern that the ability of U.S. leaders to broker peace is hurt by the perception that Congress is overwhelmingly allied with Israel. "How do you become an honest broker when you give one side the feeling you're against them?" Dingell asked.

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