Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2009, pages 30-31

Congress Watch

Congress Finally Passes FY ’09 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, Including Foreign Aid

By Shirl McArthur

As reported in the December 2008 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, rather than passing most FY ’09 appropriations bills last year, Congress in September passed a “continuing resolution” continuing appropriations for FY ’09 at the previous year’s level through March 1, 2009. Finally, after almost five months, Congress in March passed a new, “omnibus” bill, H.R. 1105, for the remainder of FY ’09 (which ends Sept. 30 of this year).

The aid appropriations in the bill, either earmarked or mentioned in the bill’s accompanying Explanatory Report are as follows:

  • Israel: no economic aid, $2.38 billion in military aid plus the $170 million in the FY ’08 supplemental appropriations, for a total of $2.55 billion, plus $30 million for “refugee assistance”;
  • West Bank and Gaza: “not more than” $75 million in economic aid;
  • Egypt: $200 million in economic aid and $1.3 billion in military aid;
  • Jordan: $363.547 million in economic aid and $235 million in military aid;
  • Lebanon: $67.5 million in economic aid, of which $10 million is for scholarships at American educational institutions, and $58.2 million in military aid;
  • Tunisia: $1.5 million in economic aid and $12 million in military aid;
  • Yemen: $21 million in economic aid.
  • In addition, there is $30 million for the Near East Regional Democracy program.

Israel’s $2.55 billion in military aid is consistent with the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel that the U.S. will give Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next 10 years. As usual, there is a separate provision saying that 26.3 percent, or $670.65 million, of Israel’s military aid can be spent in Israel. Israel is the only recipient of American foreign aid that is not required to spend all its military aid in the U.S.

H.R. 1105 was a negotiated product of House and Senate appropriators—in effect a “conference report.” After the House passed it on Feb. 25, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that if the Senate added amendments, she would not bring it to the House floor again, thereby forcing the government to continue operating at the FY ’funding level. Nevertheless, several Republican senators tried to derail the bill by adding amendments.

Of interest to the Middle East were Amendments 629, 630, and 631, all offered by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). The first would prohibit funds from being used to resettle Palestinians from Gaza into the U.S.; the second would require a report on countering smuggling efforts into Gaza; and Kyl’s third amendment would require the secretary of state to certify that no reconstruction funds for Gaza will be diverted to Hamas. Kyl withdrew his first amendment, and all the other amendments, along with Kyl’s remaining two, were defeated. The Senate passed the bill on March 10, and President Barack Obama signed it the following day.

Proposed Gaza Recovery Funds Get Mixed Congressional Reception

At the March 2 donors conference to raise funds for Gaza recovery, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans to provide $900 million for Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Of this, only $300 million is proposed for Gaza recovery. Of the remainder, $200 million is proposed for PA budget support to pay wages, and $400 million to support reform and development in the West Bank. A State Department spokesman emphasized that none of the money for Gaza would go to Hamas. It is to go through USAID “in coordination with U.N. agencies, international organizations and USAID grantees, and through the Department of State for U.N. agencies, ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], and other humanitarian organizations.”

The funds must be approved by Congress, and initial congressional reactions were mixed. Stalwart Israel supporters Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Eric Cantor (R-VA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Mike Pence (R-IN) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who apparently see the Middle East as a zero-sum game (if it’s good for the Arabs it must be bad for Israel), reflexively announced their opposition. Berkley wrote to Clinton demanding that the money be conditioned on the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006. In addition, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) sent a letter to Clinton, signed by 19 other representatives, urging her to withhold the $300 million for Gaza because giving money to Palestinians in Gaza “is no different than giving the money directly to Hamas.”

In contrast, House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who seems to realize that a peaceful Palestinian state is good for Israel, held a Feb. 12 hearing on “Gaza after the war.” In his opening statement, Ackerman urged that Gaza’s humanitarian and reconstruction needs be met, but he also blasted both Israelis and Palestinians for causing progress toward a two-state solution to be “spiraling downward.” He specifically equated terrorism and the firing of rockets with “the march of settlements and outposts” and “the perpetuation of settler pogroms.” At the same hearing Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) said “the notion that Israel can continue to expand settlements...without diminishing the capacity of a two-state solution is both unrealistic and...hypocritical.”

Similarly, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Reps. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) visited Gaza shortly after the Israeli assault and were appalled at the destruction they saw. They cited an immediate need for humanitarian aid and said that Israel should be persuaded to open the borders for aid. (For Baird’s account of their visit see the April Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 21.) Later, after visiting Gaza for half a day, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) called for increased opening of the border crossings to allow “expanded humanitarian and reconstruction aid” (see p. 70).

More Positive Congressional Actions

Continuing the (relatively) good news, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) initiated a letter to Clinton, signed by 32 senators and sent on Feb. 27, urging the secretary to use her visit to Israel and the West Bank “to underscore your personal commitment, and that of President Obama, to Israel’s security and to achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

H.Res. 130, introduced in February by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA), continues to gain co-sponsors and has 90, including Delahunt. It expresses “support for the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace,” and would commit the House to supporting Mitchell, the president, and the secretary of state “in their vigorous pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts based on the establishment of two states, the State of Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, and with recognized borders.”

In addition, identical bills were introduced in the House and Senate prohibiting the use of cluster munitions unless they “do not result in more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance” and “will only be used against clearly defined military targets.” H.R. 981 and S. 416 were introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), with 23 co-sponsors, and Senator Feinstein, with 23 co-sponsors, respectively, on Feb. 11.

Also, H.R. 578, introduced in January by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), has gained six co-sponsors, and now has 27, including Hastings. It would “address the impending humanitarian crisis and potential security breakdown as a result of the mass influx of Iraqi refugees into neighboring countries, and the growing internally displaced population in Iraq, by increasing directed accountable assistance to these populations and their host countries” (see p. 26).

Congressional Input in the Freeman Incident Called a “Turning Point”

Some members of Congress played a major role in the March 10 withdrawal of Ambassador Charles W. Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. As early as March 2, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) wrote to National Intelligence Director (DNI) Dennis Blair citing his concerns about Freeman’s views. On March 3, 10 Republican House members, led by Kirk (see p. 32), in what “observers” cited in The Washington Post called a turning point in the effort to stop Freeman’s candidacy, wrote to the DNI inspector general asking him to “investigate Amb. Freeman’s past and current relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Signers of the letter, besides Kirk, were Reps. Berkley, John Boehner (OH), Cantor, Bob Inglis (SC), Doug Lamborn (CO), Leonard Lance (NJ), Patrick McHenry (NC), Sue Myrick (NC), and Mike Rogers (MI).

In the Senate, all seven Republican members of the Intelligence Committee—Sens. Kit Bond (MO), Richard Burr (NC), Saxby Chambliss (GA), Tom Coburn (OK), Orrin Hatch (UT), Olympia Snowe (ME) and James Risch (ID)—wrote to Blair on March 9 protesting Freeman’s selection. At a March 10 hearing, just hours before Freeman’s withdrawal, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) expressed his concerns to Blair. (For more on the Freeman affair see p. 10.)

Ros-Lehtinen Continues Efforts to Strengthen Iran and Syria Sanctions

As expected, H.R. 485, introduced by Ros-Lehtinen in January “to strengthen existing legislation sanctioning persons aiding and facilitating nonproliferation activities by the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Syria” still has no co-sponsors. That, however, has not deterred the Cuban-American congresswoman. On Feb. 26 she introduced separate bills strengthening sanctions on Syria and Iran. H.R. 1206, with 53 co-sponsors, would strengthen sanctions against Syria and “enhance multilateral commitment to address [Syria’s] threatening policies.” H.R. 1208, with 48 co-sponsors, would “strengthen existing legislation sanctioning persons aiding and facilitating nonproliferation activities” by Iran.

Some Representatives Launch New Attacks on UNRWA and the U.N.

As they have done in recent Congresses, Reps. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) and Kirk on Jan. 28 reintroduced their resolution attacking the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), presumably for the sins of helping Palestinians and periodically criticizing Israel. H.Con.Res. 29 says that the U.N. “should take immediate steps to improve the transparency and accountability of [UNRWA] to ensure that it is not providing funding, employment, or other support to terrorists.” The resolution has 26 co-sponsor, including Rothman and Kirk. In addition, on March 6, five Republican representatives wrote to Clinton urging that the U.S. immediately cease any funding for UNRWA until it addresses a long list of “concerns.” Signers were Reps. Boehner, Cantor, Thaddeus McCotter (MI), Pence, and Ros-Lehtinen. Also, Berkley’s letter described above objecting to aid for Palestinians also objected to routing any of the money through UNRWA, because it allegedly “has proven itself to be a biased agency with very little oversight.”

More far-reaching, and potentially more serious, is H.R. 557, introduced by Ros-Lehtinen on Jan. 15, with the relatively innocuous title “to promote transparency, accountability, and reform within the United Nations system.” Considering the source, it is not surprising that major parts of the bill are devoted to correcting the U.N.’s transgressions against Israel. Among other things, it would withhold U.S. contributions to UNRWA, urging that its functions be transferred to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; require an audit of U.N. entities concerned with Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to “ensure balance in the approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues”; and require the U.S. to try to get the U.N. secretary-general to issue a directive requiring that all U.N. employees officially condemn anti-Semitic statements made in U.N.-affiliated forums, and to “continue working toward further reduction of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel resolutions.” The measure has 70 co-sponsors, including Ros-Lehtinen. 

Shirl McArthur, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, is a consultant based in the Washington, DC area. 

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