Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The State Department yesterday deferred a decision on how much to withhold from a $9 billion package of loan guarantees to Israel to penalize it for continuing to settle Jews in Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

The $9 billion package — an add-on to the $3 billion in outright aid the United States gives Israel each year — was part of an emergency request from Israel this year to cushion it from the economic effect of its three-year battle with Palestinians and the effects of the Iraq war.

Yesterday marked a deadline for the Bush administration to notify Congress on how much of the $9 billion Israel should forfeit because of its failure to honor pledges to halt Jewish settlements, as well as efforts to extend its de facto border into the West Bank with a security fence.

“We’ll report to Congress today or very soon,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

“But don’t expect us to start laying out specific amounts at this point because we’ve really not made those decisions and our consultations with the Israelis on these matters continue.”

Mr. Boucher insisted that deductions will be made to ensure that the United States is not helping to subsidize settlements.

Asked whether the deferral would send the wrong message to the Middle East, a senior State Department official said:

“We are sending the right message by making clear we intend to make deductions. … It’s a complicated subject and we have to decide how it applies.”

The package allows Israel to borrow $9 billion over the next three years at below-market interest rates.

A similar loan-guarantee package worth about $10 billion was approved by Congress in the early 1990s to help Israel resettle refugees from the Soviet Union.

That package was frozen by the first Bush administration in 1992 — also because of Israel’s construction of settlements in Palestinian lands.

The money was eventually released.

Washington’s top Middle East diplomat said yesterday that Israel’s settlement activities and the security fence are impediments to implementing President Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel by 2005.

“As Israeli settlements expand and their populations increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how two peoples will be separated into two states,” William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the U.S.-Arab Economic Forum in Detroit.

But on Capitol Hill, lawmakers criticized the administration’s position on the security fence.

“The fence is a completely defensive measure. Israel should be applauded for it,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Rep. Steve Israel, also a New York Democrat, said the administration is “absolutely inconsistent.”

“Fifteen of the 19 hijackers [on September 11] were from Saudi Arabia. Nobody is talking about withholding aid to the Saudis. Why Israel? It’s really the only democratic friend we have in the Middle East.”

• Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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