Despite all the assurances and understandings, the U.S. Congress last week didn't transfer the $200 million it had promised Israel.
Congress ratified the American budget for 2003 but removed from the bill the clause about the grant for Israel. The money was a special defense grant President George W. Bush's administration had promised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for expenses in the anti-terror war. But, it turns out, it's easy to make promises and harder to follow through.
The original promise to Israel, given by former president Bill Clinton to former prime minister Ehud Barak, was for $800 million for expenses incurred by the "withdrawal from Lebanon." Israel did, indeed, withdraw but the special grant never arrived.
In 2000, the U.S. administration changed and Bush reduced the promised grant to $200 million, changing its name from "Withdrawal from Lebanon" to "Anti-Terror War." Its new name and lower sum didn't help, however, and last week it turned out that even a rich country like the United States is making budgetary calculations.
The cancellation was made against the backdrop of the huge deficit in the American budget (see chart). The balancing of the budget actually improved during the Clinton years and there was a surplus of cash. However, when the economic slowdown in the United States began, following the crash of the Nasdaq stock exchange and the high-tech industry, the deficit began to grow. It currently stands at 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). If one adds to this the deficits of the individual states, the total deficit is 2.8 percent of the GDP, which the Republicans really don't like - hence the wielding of the budget-cut ax.
A senior source in the Israeli delegation, which held talks in Washington yesterday on the loan guarantees and the grant, told Haaretz it was "a bit petty to wrangle over $200 million when we were discussing billions. If we get the billions, the $200 million is no longer important."
Maybe it's petty, but the non-approval of the $200 million is a warning light for Israel regarding the request for the billions. After all, the aid request has to be approved by Congress, whose members have constituents with their own problems and budget cuts. The Americans are also familiar with the saying, "take care of your own poor first."
Likewise, Congress has members who will vote against the aid as long as Sharon is expanding the settlements, not taking down the illegal outposts and not accepting Bush's "road map," wanting instead to add 100 alterations, which may as well be 100 obstacles.
Israel is not the only country asking the United States for loan guarantees and grants. Turkey wants $40 billion in exchange for its cooperation in the campaign against Iraq and Jordan is asking for $4 billion.
Ironically, the only chance we have for receiving the American aid is the war in Iraq. Only then will the U.S. administration submit the request to Congress for a "special budget supplement" for the war expenses. The supplement will apparently amount to $100 billion, which will include the sums that will be transferred to the loyal allies in the Middle East - Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
Thus, the war in Iraq has become an instrument for saving the Israeli economy, since treasury sources say that, without the requested funds - $8 billion in loan guarantees and a $4 billion grant - Israel won't be able to regain its balance or raise capital abroad, resulting in the continued deterioration of the economy.
Sources at the Prime Minister's Office say that, even if there is no war, we will get the billions. The matter of the unapproved $200 million, however, teaches us that nothing is in our pocket yet. The process in the United States is long and exhausting - first, an understanding with the administration, then the presentation of political and economic conditions, and only then nerve-racking discussions in Congress, the outcome of which is completely unclear.
We shouldn't count our chickens before they've hatched.
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