The 112th Congress opened with a fierce budget debate left unresolved at the end of the 111th Congress in 12/10. Republicans took control of the House and made significant gains in the Senate in the 2010 midterm elections, with strong support from Tea Party groups. The central issue for Republicans was reducing federal spending. The debate was so divisive that a bill to set spending for FY2011, which had begun 10/1/10, was not passed until 4/15/11, barely averting a government shutdown.
Before the 112th Congress opened, House Budget Cmte. Chmn. Paul Ryan (R-WI) said he wanted to return to 2008 spending levels by cutting $100 b. from the 2011 budget. A similar plan was presented by the Republican Study Cmte. (RSC), the conservative caucus of 165 House Republicans. Republicans generally exempted defense and security spending from their budget proposals, but foreign assistance was often a target, with the RSC calling for eliminating the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides a large portion of aid to the West Bank and Gaza.
It was in this climate that Israel was slated to receive a substantial increase in military assistance under the terms of a 2007 U.S.-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), and Pres. Barack Obama requested increases in U.S. support for Israeli missile-defense programs and in security assistance to the PA Security Forces (PASF).
While a cut in U.S. aid to Israel was improbable, it was a possibility. Before becoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Cmte., Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), a fervent supporter of Israel backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and pro-Israel political action committees (PACs), suggested she would support reducing aid to Israel if the Republican leadership deemed it necessary. Newly elected Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a Tea Party favorite, suggested that all foreign aid, including Israel’s, be cut, a suggestion immediately repudiated by Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as by AIPAC, J Street, and Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
To shield assistance to Israel from budget cuts, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) proposed removing it from the foreign-operations budget and making it a separate line item in the defense budget. Democrats and pro-Israel groups resisted the proposal, arguing a robust foreign-assistance budget aided Israel’s security and fearing a standalone line item would be more vulnerable to future cuts.
AIPAC privately expressed to Republican leaders its concerns about Cantor’s proposal. The group also mildly resisted the effort in a public statement citing the importance of U.S. assistance to Israel and of the aid being part of a strong overall foreign-assistance budget, and noting Cantor’s past support of foreign aid.
The uncertainty of the budget debate prompted pro-Israel groups to push Congress to maintain aid levels. Members of the pro-Israel PAC NORPAC met 450 members of Congress (4/6/11) to lobby for continued aid to Israel. Additionally, at the conclusion of J Street’s 2/26–3/1/11 conference, activists met over 200 members of Congress to urge continued aid to Israel and the PA. Specifically, J Street asked them to sign a letter to Pres. Barack Obama to resist efforts to reduce foreign aid and separate Israel from the foreign-affairs budget, and to support his request for increased funding for Israel and the PA. The letter gained 116 Democratic signatures and was sent 3/15/11. Separately, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an umbrella organization founded by and including AIPAC, warned that proposed budget cuts would hurt U.S. commitments to “key allies in the Middle East.”
A major sign that assistance to Israel was safe came when 67 freshman Republican House members, most Tea Party affiliates and all advocates of drastic budget cuts, signed a 2/11/11 letter to the House Republican leadership supporting fully funding aid for Israel. The letter asserted that U.S. security “is directly tied to the strength and security of the State of Israel.” A similar letter was sent to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) by 11 Senate Republican freshmen on 4/1/11. Republican support for Israel’s aid was subsequently borne out as new budget proposals were made.
The first Republican attempt to reduce federal spending was made with H.R. 1, to set FY2011 spending. Four amendments to reduce spending beyond the Republican leadership’s targets were introduced, but each exempted military assistance to Israel along with defense and security spending (H.A. 104, 111, 167, and 172 to H.R. 1 of 2/11/11). This pattern continued when, citing the U.S. government’s $1.5 t. deficit, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) submitted two amendments to the energy and water development appropriations bill (H.A. 600 and 675 to H.R. 2354 of 6/24/11), which removed $6 m. from the $8 m. budget for the Dept. of Energy’s international renewable energy programs, but earmarked the remaining $2 m. for energy programs carried out with Israel. Further attempts to cut contributions to the UN and broader foreign-assistance programs were made in the House Foreign Affairs Cmte. amendments to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (H.R. 2583 of 7/19/11), but the bill also authorized increased military assistance for Israel.
Funding Cuts Targeting Palestine, the UN, and Regional Actors
While Republicans proposed broad cuts to foreign aid out of budget concerns, Republicans and Democrats alike proposed specific aid cuts in reaction to regional events. Nineteen bills to withhold U.S. economic and/or military assistance to the PA, the UN, Lebanon, and/or Egypt were introduced, most permitting the president to waive restrictions in the interest of U.S. national security.
Recognition of Palestine at the UN
Congress convened as PA efforts to gain recognition of a Palestinian state were underway. Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia recognized Palestinian statehood before the planned push for UN General Assembly recognition in the 9/2011 session. Before the UN session, two bills were introduced to prohibit funding to the PA if it sought UN recognition or unilaterally declared independence (H.R. 1592 of 4/15/11 and H.R. 2583 of 7/19/11). The House and Senate both overwhelmingly passed nonbinding resolutions (H. Res. 268 of 5/13/11 and S. Res. 185 of 5/16/11) calling on Pres. Obama to veto any UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood and warning that continued PA pursuit of recognition jeopardized future assistance to it. Both resolutions were AIPAC lobbying priorities. Reps. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Cmte. State and Foreign Operations Subcmte., wrote PA pres. Mahmud Abbas (7/7/11) warning that their “ability to support current and future aid would be severely threatened” if the PA sought UN recognition or formed a unity government with Hamas.
The UN itself was targeted for funding cuts if it recognized Palestinian statehood or upgraded the PLO mission’s status. Despite an existing law barring funding to any UN body granting the PLO mission the same status as a member state, 7 bills were introduced that threatened such a cutoff. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to admit the PLO delegation 10/31/11; the same day the State Dept. froze its $60 m. UNESCO contribution. Anticipating the vote, Rep. Lowey wrote UNESCO dir.-gen. Irina Bokova (10/5/11) warning of a funding cutoff and urging cancellation of the vote on Palestinian membership.
Fatah/Hamas Unity Government
The 5/4/11 Fatah-Hamas agreement to form a national-unity government became a major concern in Congress. Despite the proposed government’s narrow focus, 6 bills sought to cut assistance to the PA if it included Hamas. Two bills carried over restrictions in place since 2009 on funding for a unity government, namely that the government forswear violence, recognize Israel, and abide by past peace agreements (H.R. 1 of 2/11/11 and H.R. 1473 of 4/11/11). Two others expanded the restriction to include any power-sharing government resulting from an agreement with Hamas, regardless of whether it included Hamas members, and over which Hamas “exercises undue influence” (H.R. 2055 of 5/31/11 and H.R. 3671 of 12/14/11). Two additional bills sought to broaden the restrictions, one restricting aid until Hamas recognized Israel as a Jewish state and stopped terrorism and incitement (H.R. 2457 of 7/7/11), the other blocking aid to any government that included Hamas members, regardless of any Hamas softening of its stance toward Israel (H.R. 2583 of 7/17/11).
Three resolutions urged Obama to suspend aid to any unity government until Hamas accepted the Quartet principles (H. Res. 244 of 5/3/11, H. Res. 268 of 5/13/11, and S. Res. 185 of 5/16/11). The 7/7/11 Granger/Lowey letter to Abbas threatened an aid cutoff if a unity government were formed. Two groups of senators wrote Pres. Obama urging him to stop funding for the PA until Hamas met the Quartet conditions. The Democratic letter, written by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Casey (D-PA) and signed by 25 other senators, was delivered 5/6/11 the Republican letter followed on 6/22/11 written by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and John Boozman (R-AR) and signed by 14 additional senators. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) organized both letters and lobbied for a halt to assistance to the PA.
UN Funding and the Goldstone Report
Besides threatening the UN over PA statehood, Congress, motivated by Judge Richard Goldstone’s 4/1/11 Washington Post op-ed recanting his opinion that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians, also threatened the UN with funding cuts unless it annulled the Goldstone Report on the 2008–9 war in Gaza. Two bills were introduced soon after to withhold all funding to the UN until it annulled the report (H.R. 1501 of 4/12/11 and S. 923 of 5/9/11). Later two other bills were introduced to withhold from the U.S. contribution to the UN an amount equal to its share of the Goldstone mission’s expenses (H.R. 2829 of 8/30/11 and S. 1848 of 11/10/11). Two other resolutions urged the UN Human Rights Council to rescind the report (S. Res. 138 of 4/8/11) and recognized Goldstone’s admission that the report’s conclusions were deeply flawed (H. Res. 232 of 4/15/11).
Republican lawmakers sought to cut U.S. contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), reflecting the long-standing GOP perception that the agency perpetuates the Palestinian refugee issue and supports terrorism. Three bills were introduced to withhold U.S. funding until UNRWA met a litany of conditions (H.R. 2457 of 7/7/11) and to extensively audit it to ensure it is not supporting terrorism (H.R. 2829 of 8/30/11 and S. 1848 of 11/10/11).
Assistance to Egypt
Following the January overthrow of Egyptian pres. Husni Mubarak, Congress became concerned with Egyptian-Israeli relations. The Senate passed (2/3/11) by unanimous consent a resolution supporting democracy and a peaceful transition of power, but as fears increased over the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ attitude toward Israel and increasing Muslim Brotherhood influence, 6 bills were introduced conditioning U.S. assistance on Egyptian compliance with the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Assistance to Lebanon
Events in Lebanon also prompted proposed restrictions to its economic and military assistance program. An 8/3/10 border clash that killed an Israeli soldier and two Lebanese soldiers had led Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) to place a temporary hold on further military assistance in 2010. Congress was concerned that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) was negligent in disarming Hizballah and that U.S. assistance could wind up aiding the group, concerns that deepened when PM Sa‘d Hariri’s government collapsed on 1/12/11 and Hizballahsupported Najib Mikati formed a new government. Eight bills were introduced restricting funding to Lebanon. FY2011 military assistance was prohibited unless the secy. of state certified it as in the national security interest (see H.R. 1473 of 4/11/11, which on 4/15/2011 became Public Law 112-10). The strictest measures were the Hezbollah Antiterrorism Act (H.R. 2215 of 6/16/11), a similar amendment to a defense funding bill (H.A. 14 to H.R. 2219 of 6/16/11), and the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (H.R. 2583 of 7/19/11).
Final Action by Congress
These efforts to cut off or restrict U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, the UN, Lebanon, and Egypt culminated in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (H.R. 2055 of 5/31/11). The bill funded all these programs, but allowed the administration to spend the money only if Congress’s conditions were met. On the UN recognition bid, legislators did not cut off PA funding, but prohibited economic assistance if a second attempt were made. Assistance to the PASF was not affected, and the prohibition on economic assistance could be waived in the U.S. national interest. New restrictions were added cutting off funding to any PA government arising from an agreement with Hamas or over which Hamas “exercises undue influence,” again subject to a presidential waiver. Economic and security assistance to Egypt is prohibited unless Egypt abides by the 1979 treaty with Israel. Military assistance to Lebanon is also prohibited if the LAF is controlled by a “foreign terrorist organization.” No further restrictions on funding for the UN were added beyond those already in place.
Other Major Priorities
Nine bills sought military or economic aid for Israel, including each of the 3 bills that became law. Of the three laws, two provided grants for Israel for purchases of military equipment from the United States, resettlement of Jewish migrants to Israel, and U.S.-Israeli energy cooperation, as well as providing annual funding for Israeli missiledefense systems (H.R. 1473 of 4/11/11 and H.R. 2055 of 5/31/11). The third authorized Defense Dept. research and development programs and also sanctioned Iran’s financial sector (H.R. 1540 of 4/14/11). Six other bills would provide other benefits to Israel. One would allow Israel to retain its major settlement blocs, ease arms sales to Israel, and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (H.R. 2583 of 7/19/11); another would make Israelis eligible for a special investor visa (S. 921 of 5/9/11); and a third would allow the president to carry out combat operations to defend Israel without congressional authorization (H.R. 1609 of 4/15/11).
Iran’s ongoing nuclear program continued to be a major concern. With no progress made in multilateral negotiations with Iran, the administration focused on imposing unilateral economic sanctions on Iran’s petroleum and banking sectors. Having sanctioned Iran’s petroleum sector in 2010, Congress focused on Iran’s financial sector, seeking to penalize foreign banks doing business with it and tightening sanctions on petroleum.
Eight bills targeted Iran’s financial sector, particularly the Central Bank of Iran. AIPAC lobbied extensively for three of these bills, H.R. 1905 of 5/13/11, S. 1867 of 11/15/11, and H.R. 1540 of 5/14/11, the National Defense Authorization Act, 2012, which passed into law. Five further bills targeted Iran’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs (H.R. 1655 of 4/15/11, H.R. 2105 of 6/3/11, and S. 1619 of 9/22/11) and services to Iranian shipping and offshore oil platforms (S. 1496 of 8/2/11 and H.R. 2998 of 9/21/11). In addition, five nonbinding resolutions condemned Iran’s human-rights violations (H. Res. 94 of 2/15/11, and H. Res. 134 and S. Res. 80, both of 3/1/11), with one bill supporting Israel’s right to attack Iran (H. Res. 271 of 5/23/11) and another urging the designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism because of its relationship with Iran (H. Res. 247 of 5/4/11).
The Arab Spring
Apart from Egypt, the “Arab Spring” uprisings had limited impact in Congress. Two AIPAC-backed resolutions expressing congressional support for human rights in Syria cited Syria’s support for Hizballah (S. Res. 180 of 5/11/11 and H. Res. 296 of 6/3/11). Two bills to impose sanctions against Syria and aid opposition groups likewise cited Syrian support for Hizballah and Hamas as well as the 5/15 demonstration on the Golan Heights (H.R. 2106 of 6/3/11 and S. 1472 of 8/2/11). Another resolution opposing deploying U.S. ground troops in Libya directed the president to report on the Libyan Transitional National Council’s relationship with Hizballah (H. Res. 292 of 6/3/11).
Overview of Legislative Action
Overall, 94 measures relating to Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli conflict were introduced this session. Sixty-five of these were bills and joint resolutions that if passed would carry the force of law. Three eventually became law:
The Defense Dept. and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (H.R. 1473 of 4/11/11) and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (H.R. 2055 of 5/31/11) provided military and some economic assistance to Israel, as well as economic and security assistance to the Palestinians, Lebanon, and Egypt for 2011 and 2012 respectively. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (H.R. 1540 of 4/14/11) authorized Defense Dept. research and development for Israeli missile-defense systems and contained new sanctions on Iran’s financial sector sought by AIPAC and the wider pro-Israel community.
In addition, 29 simple and concurrent resolutions were introduced, 8 of which passed. Expressing the “sense of Congress,” these do not have the force of law but can carry significant political weight.