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Israel shows its muscle dealing with Congress

Times Senior Correspondent
St. Petersburg Times
May 12, 2002

During the 2000 election campaign, pro-Israel groups were among the biggest contributors to U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Florida. The Fort Lauderdale Democrat got $23,400, more than he received from groups representing education and health care interests.

But Deutsch says the pro-Israel money had nothing to do with his May 2 vote for a controversial House resolution expressing unequivocal support for Israel.

Nor, he says, did the money affect his decision to join three other members of Congress in flying to Israel that day to hand-deliver the resolution to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"I honestly have no much idea how much money I was given," Deutsch said. "And it's irrelevant in terms of anything."

Others aren't so sure.

"Clearly the giving by the pro-Israel interests has an impact in Congress," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., organization that monitors campaign financing. "You can't say it's the only thing that impacts Congress in terms of the resolution, but it clearly does have a lot of impact."

According to the center, pro-Israel groups have contributed $41.3-million to federal candidates and political party committees since 1989. In the same period, pro-Arab and pro-Muslim interests have given $297,000.

Of course, congressional support of Israel is neither new nor surprising. The United States has been Israel's closest friend since 1948, when President Harry Truman became the first world leader to recognize the new Jewish state. Despite its small size and scarce natural resources, Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the globe and built a thriving country -- with the help of billions in U.S. aid -- that is the only democracy in the Middle East.

But critics say Israel's continued occupation of land seized during the 1967 Middle East War has stymied peace and contributed to the violence that has claimed the lives of 489 Israelis and more than 1,500 Palestinians since September 2000.

The latest crisis came in late March when Israel, in response to a suicide bombing that killed 28 Jews, invaded several Palestinian cities. President Bush found himself caught between Arab demands to stop the incursion and Israel's insistence on destroying the "infrastructure of terrorism."

It was amid Bush's attempts to end the crisis that the House passed the resolution expressing solidarity with Israel and condemning Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Although 352 members voted yes, there was enough concern about the measure that 82 others voted no or didn't vote. Some opponents said the resolution would hurt America's ability to act as an evenhanded broker in Mideast peace negotiations.

"This one-sided resolution will only fan the killing frenzy," charged Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. "It offers no encouragement for the Arab states to have a place at the peace table. . . . Israel cannot make peace alone. This resolution envisions no Palestinian state. At its worst, I fear it represents crass domestic politics in this election year."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., argued that the resolution failed to take into account that neither Israelis nor Palestinians had fully honored the 1993 Oslo peace agreement.

"Let us get that straight," he told his House colleagues. "Neither side is an angel."

Florida's Deutsch countered that Israel's fight against Palestinian attacks and America's fight against al-Qaida are one and the same.

"There is no Yasser Arafat exemption to the war on terrorism," said Deutsch, who is Jewish and has many Jewish voters in his state.

Hours after the resolution passed, Deutsch and three other House members flew to Israel aboard a U.S. Navy plane. At least one Israeli newspaper called the trip a "fact-finding mission" although any facts gathered came from the Israeli side. Deutsch said he and his colleagues asked to meet with Palestinians but were told that was impossible unless they agreed to see Arafat. They declined.

"The consensus is that it's a post-Arafat era and he's a terrorist," Deutsch said in a phone interview after his return last week. The four also asked to go to the West Bank and Gaza Strip but were warned by the U.S. Embassy in Israel that it would be too dangerous, Deutsch said.

Instead, the delegation met with Israeli leaders and visited victims of terrorism. One of the "most constructive" parts of the trip, Deutsch said, was seeing the large amount of weapons Israel seized from the freighter Karine A as they purportedly were being smuggled into Gaza in January.

"This was a very, very sophisticated operation that I did not have a sense of at all until we got there," Deutsch said.

The bipartisan delegation was led by Rep. James Saxton, chairman of the Special House Oversight Panel on Terrorism. The Ohio Republican listed pro-Israel groups as among his biggest contributors in the last election, with a total of $29,900.

Historically, groups supporting Israel have funnelled about two-thirds of their contributions to Democratic candidates. But that may change.

"You hear talk that Republicans think the pro-Israel vote may be easier to get this time and that it may be easier to break some of that money away from Democrats," says Noble. "If it does shift, it may be due in part to the support Israel has been getting from Republicans and conservatives."