During its lobbying mission to Washington, D.C., this week, the Zionist Organization of America had a simple message for Congress: Keep funds and arms out of the hands of Israel’s enemies.
But the questions of who constitutes an enemy and whether aid can be an important foreign policy tool in encouraging certain behavior prompts debate in the Jewish world. Few, if any, would dispute that Iran is a foe. But what of Egypt or the Palestinians? The question of whether or not to view the Palestinians as eternal adversaries or potential partners has long divided Jews and many are now asking that question about the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
ZOA, known as a hawkish group along the Jewish political spectrum, is one of only a few Jewish groups pushing for Congress to eliminate, or at least put some serious conditions on, American aid to the Palestinians and the Egyptians.
More than 70 Philadelphians joined approximately 250 people from other cities for the day in the nation’s capital on May 22 , which featured a legislative update from ZOA professionals, brief talks from members of the House and Senate, and meetings with lawmakers from both parties. In most cases, ZOA members met with aides, rather than the lawmakers themselves.
The mission came just days after ZOA announced that its tax-exempt status had been reinstated, more than a year after it was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.
Speaking about the regime of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, said, “This is not the type of government that we want to fund.”
He said the government is oppressing women and Christians, fomenting hatred of Jews and failing to live up to the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal by refusing to sell Israel natural gas. He also pointed out that Morsi has pledged to free Omar Abdel-Rahman, the cleric convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“Even though we know the odds are not high to get this legislation done because Obama would veto it, it is a way to educate members of the House and Senate of the horrors of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority,” Klein said, referring to several House and Senate bills ZOA is championing.
Israel has never called for the United States to withhold aid to Egypt, roughly $1.4 billion a year, but Klein said in an interview that Israeli officials have complained about the funding privately.
Funding to Egypt is a key component of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Many argue that cutting or curtailing aid will only encourage the Egyptian government to further distance itself from the United States and Israel.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, has long pushed for Congress to back foreign aid as one package. The group has opposed efforts to try to maintain funding for Israel while cutting dollars earmarked for other countries, as some Republicans have proposed.
Among the half dozen bills ZOA members advocated for during their lobbying push was a measure introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican. He has proposed taking $500 million in Egyptian aid and earmarking it toward tuition assistance for American veterans. That’s the amount that tuition assistance was cut in the sequestration process of automatic spending cuts. The measure has 39 co-sponsors, all Republicans.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who is considered a rising star in the party and a likely presidential candidate in 2016, has proposed a bill that would prohibit the sale of F-16 aircrafts and M-1 tanks to Egypt.
“The leadership says we have always done it this way, we have always given money to Egypt,” said Paul. “If Egypt is going to get money, why don’t they reaffirm the Camp David Accords? Why don’t they reaffirm Israel’s right to exist?”
ZOA is a nonpartisan group, though many of its activists lean Republican and the majority of politicians who addressed the group in Washington were from the GOP. Klein said he invited an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to attend the group’s luncheon, but scheduling prevented more Democrats from attending. In years past, he said, participation was more balanced.
The Democrats who spoke, including U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, a Democrat who represents Cherry Hill, N.J., focused on Iran, rather than Egypt or the Palestinians.
“The United States has the means to stop them, but not the will. Israel has the will to stop them, but not the means. This is a very solvable problem,” he said, adding that the United States should give Israel the military hardware it needs to destroy Iranian reactors, which are believed to be buried underground.
The ZOA has long taken controversial stands regarding the Middle East, but when it lost its tax status in February 2012, it found itself embroiled in a different kind of controversy.
The group’s status was revoked after the organization failed to file proper forms for three consecutive years. During that time, ZOA continued to fundraise and all of the money sat untouched in a donor-advised fund. Klein, a Lower Merion resident, declined to say how much money it raised during this period. After receiving a letter on May 15 that the tax-exempt status had been restored, the group is free to use those funds.
ZOA did not publicize the loss of its status; it was revealed in a September story that appeared in the Forward. ZOA canceled its 2012 national gala, but has announced that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will headline its 2013 New York gala in November.
When asked whether he thinks his group was specifically targeted by the IRS, which recently admitted targeting conservative groups, Klein responded: “I have no evidence that we were targeted, although I found it deeply troubling that our proud, 100-year-old organization, that we were suddenly — without warning — abrogated.”