While local Jewish leaders are urging the federal government to guarantee a $10 billion housing aid loan to Israel, they concede that a controversial four-month delay proposed by President Bush could become part of an acceptable compromise of the issue.
"I hope [Secretary of State James] Baker's visit to Israel this week will result in a compromise where the Israelis might agree to the 120-day delay, in exchange for an unequivocal commitment from Bush that the United States will guarantee the loan at the end of those 120 days," Art Abramson, the director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said yesterday.
"The matter of the 120-day delay is for the Israeli and American governments to work out. But if the two governments were to find a compromise acceptable, then I'm sure American Jews would also find it acceptable," said Shoshana Cardin, the Baltimorean who serves as the chairman of the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "I think the Jewish community feels there should not be a major confrontation over this issue."
The Israelis had expected to begin receiving the first $2 billion installment of the five-year loan in March. The money was to be used for the settlement of Soviet, Ethiopian and other Jews coming to Israel in record numbers. About 1 million Jews are expected to emigrate to Israel during the next several years, which would constitute the largest single migration of Jews in history.
But the Bush administration requested and won a delay of the loan guarantee until this month. Now the administration is calling for another delay to keep the loan from becoming an issue during forthcoming Mideast peace talks.
Israel and its supporters say this "linkage" of the loan to peace talks politicizes what they see as the humanitarian task of settling and employing Jewish immigrants. By delaying the loan, the White House appears to side with Mideast Arabs who say Israel is using the immigrants to stake a claim to the disputed occupied territories, according to loan proponents.
"We have concerns about using [the loan issue] as a club to get Israel to do certain things the Bush administration wants it to do, such as stopping settlement on the West Bank," said Rabbi Floyd Herman of Har Sinai Congregation in Pikesville.
Yet, most local Jews understand that the Bush administration remains a strong supporter of Israel, and they "would hate to see a confrontation" between the two nations, said Herman, who recently served as president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.
Kent Schiner, a Pikesville insurance underwriter who serves as the president of B'nai B'rith International, said he was disappointed by the Bush administration's delay request.
"We are confident that humanitarian concerns will ultimately outweigh any ephemeral political considerations, since there can no rationale for linking the immediacy of this humanitarian assistance to a peace process that has been thwarted by Israel's Arab enemies for decades," Schiner said.
Jerome Segal, a University of Maryland College Park professor who heads the Jewish Peace Lobby in Silver Spring, said a
Mideast peace is unlikely as long as Israel continues to build housing on the West Bank.
"The aid to Israel should be conditional on Israel's halting the settlement process," Segal said. "This could turn into a long struggle between the U.S. and Israel, but if we're serious about Mideast peace, then this is a fight that has to be waged. I support what the president is doing. I don't think the Likud government will stop the settlement, so Bush will have to try."
About 30 members of the local Jewish community traveled to Washington last Thursday as part of a nationwide effort to urge Congress to push through the loan guarantees. The effort, organized by three national Jewish organizations, drew about 1,200 Jews from more than 40 states, said Adam Kessler, assistant director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the umbrella organization that includes many local Jewish agencies
such as the BJC, has launched a campaign to educate the public about the loan issue. The Associated has sent mailings to about 15,000 households in the Jewish community and produced pro-loan articles and advertisements for local
Campaign organizers said they wanted to stress that the $10 billion loan would be provided by private American banks during the course of five years. The U.S. government would act only as guarantor of the funding, just as a parent might co-sign for a teen-ager's car loan.
However, U.S. tax dollars would be used for federal book-keeping costs, which could amount to up to $140 million during the five years.
Israel allegedly never has reneged on a loan.
The loan could even generate billions of dollars in business for American banks and construction firms, said Isaiah Kuperstein, the executive director of the Baltimore district of the Zionist Organization of America. The Ryland Group Inc., the Columbia-based construction company, reportedly has been involved already in new construction in Israel.
The local ZOA district has joined others across the nation in gathering signatures on a petition for the immediate approval of the loan. Kuperstein said the ZOA will try to present the petition, which has about half of its goal of 40,000 signatures, to Bush and Congress within weeks.
Members of Maryland's Congressional delegation have expressed support for quick approval of the loan. Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-3rd, historically a strong backer of Israel, said Bush has made a serious mistake in requesting a delay.
Cardin said he hopes the White House and Congress will compromise on the issue.