In Congress, support of Israel at peak pitch

White House faces lawmakers eager to lay down markers of solidarity with longtime Mideast ally.

As President Bush grapples with how to revive anything like a peace process in the Middle East, Congress is closing in on a narrower objective: to make its support for Israel as visible and compelling as possible.

The official congressional line had been to wait for Secretary of State Colin Powell to return from the region before introducing new legislation or resolutions on the issue. But for weeks, members on both sides of the aisle have been pushing the White House to soften its calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and to define the Palestine Liberation Organization as supporting terrorism.

The latest nudging typifies the strong stand lawmakers on Capitol Hill have traditionally taken on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Since the founding of the Jewish state more than 50 years ago, support for Israel in Congress has run deep, sometimes acting as a check on administration policy.

Now, as the violence in the Middle East makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central issue again – complicating the war on terrorism – Congress is trying to expand its influence over US policy in the volatile region.

One reason is that many on Capitol Hill see the events of Sept. 11 and the American war on global terrorism as a historic opportunity to reframe the terms of the Mideast debate.

At the same time, the failure of Secretary of State Colin Powell to secure a cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from West Bank villages and camps could open up a new struggle within the administration over how to proceed, and Congress wants to have a say in how it is resolved.

For many members, the goal is to push the White House toward granting Israel the same freedom that the US claims for itself to wage an all-out fight against terrorism – and to declare that the Palestinian Liberation Organization is a terrorist group.

Support for Israel has never been more intense on Capitol Hill, even as criticism mounts in Europe and the Arab world over the largest Israeli incursion into Palestinian villages and refugee camps since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

At issue in Congress is more than a historic friendship with Israel or empathy for the only democracy in the region. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, many members make the case that Israel faces the same terrorist threat as Americans, only it has faced it much longer. A massive lobby effort in recent weeks by Jewish and other pro-Israeli organizations on the Christian right reinforces those claims.

"Americans do not want to be victims again," says Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, speaking Monday at the largest rally ever held in the US in support of Israel. "Nor can we expect Israel to stand idle while her citizens are being slaughtered."

A flood of new resolutions and bills about to be released on Capitol Hill aims to shape the Bush administration's next moves in the region. One of the most watched will be a resolution by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky to declare the Palestine Liberation Organization a terrorist group, close PLO offices in Washington, and deny visas to PLO officials.

Others include resolutions endorsing Israel's right to self-defense, new sanctions on Syria and Lebanon, a proposal to cut back military assistance to Egypt, and resolutions condemning anti-Semitism in Europe, where big demonstrations have been held in support of Palestinians.

"Sharon is a man of the West. He's doing what a man has got to do. We will also encourage Israel to back off, but Israel will do what is good for Israel," says House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas, who yesterday introduced legislation that would toughen sanctions against Syria.

GOP leaders in Congress want to avert a direct confrontation with the White House on these issues. "Leadership isn't going to allow anything to move forward that's embarrassing to the president," says Marshall Wittmann, analyst at the Hudson Institute.

Still, Mr. Bush isn't likely to find a Congress as willing to curb its sympathy for Israel as his father. After the 1991 Gulf war, the first President Bush prevailed on lawmakers to withhold action on an Israeli request for $10 billion in loan guarantees for 120 days, or until Israel made concessions on settlements on the West Bank, on the grounds that it would advance the peace process. Reluctantly, Congress agreed.

In the end, the deal did not end settlements or produce peace, but it did prompt deep resentment within the Jewish community and among Christian conservatives. Both groups are reminding today's lawmakers and the White House that imposing conditions on Israel can be costly.

REPUBLICANS are hearing from the Christian right, and Democrats from Jewish groups that have been a traditional part of their base. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which claims 60,000 members, has long been one of the most influential lobbies in Washington.

"There was a sort of apathy before 9/11, but now there is a growing consensus that Israel is facing potential extinction, directed not just against Israel but against Jewish people," says Chuck Brooks, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress. "Congress is going to play a significant role in funding agreements, approving weapons sales, even in deciding whether funding for the Palestinian Authority is approved."

At the same time, voices urging sympathy for the plight of Palestinians are becoming more restrained. "Before Sept. 11, we were making some real gains here," says an aide to Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, a longtime Arab supporter. "Things have been set back, not only on foreign policy but on things of concern to the Muslim American community, such as racial profiling at airports."

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