More than 13,000 delegates to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) descended on Washington this week.
AIPAC, a lobby organization with no equal in American politics, had assembled its usual list of high-profile political leaders to address the delegates.
US President Barak Obama was not among the speakers. He had a good excuse. The president is up to his neck in what Washington calls,”sequestration”, a federal budget agreement that will bring pain to American citizens.
AIPAC does not want that pain to involve anything related to Israel’s “security”.
And so it came to pass that two pro-Israel Florida lawmakers — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (shown above), a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat — introduced a bill in the House of Representatives just in time for delegates to deliver copies of the bill to congressional offices during AIPAC’s Washington lobby week.
The Ros-Lehtnen/Deutch bill, if passed, would designate Israel as a “major strategic ally,” a one-of-a-kind label. JTC, a Jewish news agency, explains:
The legislation enshrines much that is already in existence, including $3.1 billion in annual defense assistance to Israel and missile cooperation programs. But the redundancy is precisely the point.
At a time when the president and Congress are considering how best to distribute across-the-board 8.5 percent spending cuts, AIPAC wants Congress to keep its funding for Israel as is.
Ester Kurz, AIPAC’s top congressional lobbyist, told the activists just before they headed for the Hill that “despite growing budget pressure, it is critical that Congress fully funds this aid.” She cited “the growing instability in the region and the mounting threats on Israel’s borders.”
AIPAC lobbyists were not the only messengers visiting congressional offices this week. Advocates for US groups certain to feel the pain of the spending cuts were described by Anna Simonton in a blog posting for Waging Non-Violence:
To counter the influx of pro-Israel lobbyists attending AIPAC’s annual conference, a much smaller number of people organized by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Code Pink will visit members of Congress with a simple message: “If you aren’t saving Head Start, don’t save Iron Dome”.
Head Start is “a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development”. It has a proven track record of support for preschool children.
The Iron Dome is a military project designed to make Israel invulnerable to air attacks. It is touted as highly successful. Richard Silverstein begs to differ in his posting, “Iron Dome System Failed Miserably”.
Anna Simonton writes that the Ros-Lehtinen/Deutch bill, which names Israel as a “major strategic ally” of the United States, would be “a designation bereft of actual legal meaning, but powerful in that it could distinguish Israel from all other recipients of foreign aid and thereby spare it the chopping block. Israel receives upwards of $3 billion of American taxpayers’ money every year, more than any other country except Afghanistan.”
End the Occupation and CodePink are part of a coalition of groups that organized Expose AIPAC, an umbrella organization that conducted a series of events, prior to, and during, the AIPAC conference, starting with a day of workshops on Saturday, which concluded with a keynote address by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and writer for The Nation.
Other speakers at Expose AIPAC included Palestinian human-rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab and Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy.
Josh Ruebner, writing for The Hill web site, quotes a NAACP estimate that predicts some of the specific impacts on government programs designed to benefit Americans who are most in need:
Across-the-board sequestration cuts, according to NAACP predictions,
“will result in 100,000 fewer low-income children being prepared for school through Head Start, 17 million fewer “Meals-on-Wheels” delivered to seniors suffering from food insecurity, and 1.6 million fewer unemployed Americans served through job training, education, and employment services”.
The Jerusalem Post describes how the sequestration budget cuts are seen from Tel Aviv:
Israel is concerned that the broad US budget cuts that went into effect Friday evening [March 1] will affect the economy, [Israeli] Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (pictured here) said at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
“The economic difficulties in the United States worry us.
The across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, are expected to have negative repercussions for the US economy as a whole, and could potentially cut military aid to Israel and defense cooperation on programs such as the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems.
The threat of such wide-ranging cuts was originally intended to force a fiscal agreement between Democrats and Republicans, but failed to produce results. I hope that we will not be hurt by them,” he said.
“The international environment is very tough and it is required of us to act responsibly and boldly and to work hard to maintain all of Israel’s economy and Israel’s citizens,” Steinitz said, adding a plug for parties to drop resistance to joining the government in ongoing coalition talks to ensure a “strong, stable Israel.”
The exact implications of the cuts affecting Israel remain unknown, because the specifics of how each agency will cut its budget have yet to be spelled out.. . . the total could be as high as $729 million for the year, though sources on Capitol Hill estimated that military aid cuts would be about $85m.
AIPAC’s message to Congress, according to the Post, includes “a push to provide Israel with its full $3.1 billion in military aid for 2013 and 2014, as well as $211m. in additional funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system.”
The proposed House bill which would designate Israel as a “major strategic ally”, elevates the “new alliance” to a status intended to help Israel retain its promised financial aid.
AIPAC’s campaign in Congress calls for:
a push to provide Israel with its full $3.1 billion in military aid for 2013 and 2014, as well as $211m. in additional funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system.
The Post acknowledges that there may be consequences within the American public “that attempts to exempt Israel from painful budget cuts while the rest of the US was forced to absorb them would cause a political backlash.”
In his examination of how the cuts on each side of the Atlantic will impact American voters, Josh Reubnen adds:
Israel stands to lose approximately $250 million of its $3.1 billion military aid package from the United States under the terms of the sequestration. The Jewish Week calls AIPAC’s gambit to exempt these cuts a “very risky strategy at a time when millions of Americans will be feeling the bite of the sequestration debacle,” which “could easily backfire and damage Israel far more than any cuts in its very generous grant aid program”.
But will it?
Is the US Congress so beholden to AIPAC and so insensitive to the impact on programs like Head Start for children, that it will give Israel’s self-designated “defensive needs” priority over US domestic needs?
Thanks to End the Occupation and Code Pink, the American voters have an easy-to-understand marching order for their congressional representatives: “If you aren’t saving Head Start, don’t save Iron Dome.”