WASHINGTON -- Members of a Senate foreign aid panel overwhelmingly sided with Israel yesterday in its fight with the Bush administration over loan guarantees.
The strong reaction suggested that even with the national mood opposing foreign aid and a decline in Israeli prestige, the administration may not win its terms without a battle that could jeopardize other foreign aid priorities, such as aid to the former Soviet republics.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee, has endorsed the administration's goal of trying to freeze Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
But he was virtually alone during Secretary of State James A. Baker III's appearance before the committee yesterday as member after member accused the administration of imposing impossibly unfair terms on Israel as it tries to absorb Jews from the former Soviet Union.
According to the Baker terms, Israel could get the full $10 billion in loan guarantees only if it halted all settlement activity. It could qualify for lesser amounts by freezing new construction but completing already-started units.
Sen. Robert W. Kasten, a Wisconsin Republican, said: "Mr. Secretary, this generation of Americans does not want to find itself in the same position as a generation of Americans who believed Franklin Roosevelt. He proclaimed that reports of the annihilation of Jews by Nazi Germany were inaccurate."
Referring to what he called Mr. Baker's "take-it-or-leave-it" position, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat from Arizona, questioned whether the secretary also had demanded that Syria stop the export of drugs from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which it controls, or demanded that Saudi Arabia recognize Israel and end the anti-Israel economic boycott.
Adding to the friction was an administration letter to Congress late Monday outlining a Saudi Arabian request to purchase 72 F-15 aircraft worth about $5 billion.
Advanced-weaponry sales to the Saudis usually draw opposition from pro-Israeli forces. But this request is particularly controversial because it calls for 48 sophisticated F-15E ground attack aircraft, which the United States has never sold abroad.
The administration has taken no official position on the sale, but was to hold closed-door congressional briefings yesterday and today on a series of potential weapons deals, including the F-15s.
A group of congressmen, including David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who is chairman of the House foreign aid appropriations panel, circulated a letter opposing the sale on the grounds it would significantly escalate the Mideast arms race.
Working in the Saudis' favor, however, is the threat to the U.S. defense industry, and jobs associated with it, posed by the shrinking of the American military budget and the prospect that the American edge in military aircraft may not be sustained without overseas sales.
Mr. Baker's tough terms for approving Israeli loan guarantees appear to have emboldened Palestinian negotiators to revise their strategy in Middle East peace talks which resumed in Washington this week.
Their spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, said that before Palestinians would be willing to negotiate autonomy in the occupied territories, they wanted both a halt to Israeli settlements and an end to alleged Israeli human rights violations.
She dismissed a document on autonomy put forward by Israeli negotiators yesterday as "an insult to anybody's intelligence."