WASHINGTON -- The momentum to aid Russia is beginning to stir debate on the politically explosive issue of far greater amounts of U.S. aid for a couple of old friends in the Middle East: Israel and Egypt.
Together, the two Middle Eastern countries draw more than $5 billion a year, at least one-third of the U.S. foreign-aid budget and more than three times the aid package President Clinton presented to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin a week ago.
Israel, the largest total and cumulative U.S. aid recipient, also gets benefits unavailable to other recipients, such as being able to draw economic aid at the beginning of the fiscal year instead of in installments and adding to U.S. interest costs.
For now, the enduring position of the two Middle East states atop the foreign-aid heap is secure, with President Clinton pledging to maintain current aid levels. Such is Israel's clout on Capitol Hill, where it is backed by one of Washington's strongest and most sophisticated lobbies, that the president would have to take the politically risky initiative himself for any aid cut to pass Congress.
But the opening rounds have been fired in what could be a divisive and protracted struggle, with major implications for the Middle East peace process, future and higher levels of aid to Russia and other struggling democracies, and redirection of foreign aid generally to cope with emerging world problems.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate's foreign aid appropriations subcommittee, urged recently that Israel and Egypt voluntarily yield some of their aid to ease the U.S. ability to assist the progress of democracy and free market reform in Russia.
"I would hope that no country -- no country -- would assume that when we talked about U.S. tax dollars that they must first and foremost look only to their economic and security interests and not to the economic and security, also, of the United States," Mr. Leahy warned in a hearing March 30.
Earlier, his House counterpart, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., said: "We cannot forever assume that we're going to be providing this high percentage of the [foreign aid] bill to the Middle Eastern region. I think we have a right to expect over time to see that decline."
Pressure to cut is growing from a number of sources:
The Russian aid package announced April 4 is just part of what promises to be a multiyear aid commitment by the United States and its wealthiest allies -- provided that Russia stays on the reform path.
Mr. Clinton said he would work with Congress on a further package, and has already added $300 million to the Bush administration's Russian-aid request.
Strong public opposition to foreign aid is compounding the squeeze, particularly at a time when popular sentiment backs long-term domestic growth and cutting the deficit.
This disillusionment, in turn, has fueled demands for top-to-bottom reform of foreign aid that redirects money to the new challenges of dismantling Cold War structures, expanding U.S. markets overseas, protecting the environment and
controlling population growth.
At the same time, with the end of the Cold War, part of the strategic rationale for aiding Israel and Egypt as allies against the spread of world communism has disappeared.
For both Israel and Egypt, the new pressure on U.S. foreign aid couldn't come at a worse time.
Israel, under growing domestic stress from the violence between Jews and Arabs, also is wrestling with pressure to cede authority in occupied territories to Palestinians and yielding land to Syria.
Far from willingly accepting an overall aid cut, Israel seeks assurance from the United States that as it prepares to "take risks for peace," its security will be protected, if not enhanced.
Egypt, a strong U.S. ally that sent forces to the Persian Gulf and has promoted the peace process among Arab states and Palestinians, faces an internal threat from extremists seeking to turn the nation into an Islamic state. Anti-Western violence has caused a decline in tourism and made Egypt all the more dependent on foreign aid.
Besides terrorist attacks, both nations see a looming threat from Iran, which subsidizes extremist threats to the peace process and to West-leaning neighbors. Iran has embarked on a major arms program of acquiring missiles and weapons of mass
destruction to attain its goal of dominance in the Persian Gulf.
Part of the public opposition to foreign aid may stem from misperceptions. The $14 billion total represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget. And most of the military aid -- for Israel, $1.8 billion, for Egypt, $1.3 billion -- actually goes for weaponry and technology purchased in this country.
Israel's economic aid goes to pay interest on past debts to the United States before the program was converted to grants. An "overwhelming" amount of Egypt's economic aid is spent here, according to an Egyptian embassy spokesman here.