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Where It Hurts


By Antony J. Blinken

ISRAELI DEPUTY Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben-Meir was mad. "I can only express our amazement and consternation at the position which has been taken by the Reagan Administration," he told an Israeli radio station last Thursday.

Ben-Meir was referring to the heavy-handed attempt by the White House to prevent Congress from increasing aid to the Jewish state beyond the sum requested by the Administration. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee--by voice vote, without dissent--approved a $910 million grant to Israel, $125 million more than the White House wanted. Over the past weekend, though, sides to President Reagan and State Department officials have been pushing the committee to go back on its decision.

Congressional committees have voted repeatedly to increase aid to Israel. After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, for example. Congress almost doubled the amount of assistance the Nixon administration had requested. In the aftermath of Lebanon, political experts predicted the Begia government would have trouble getting U.S. funds because of increased resistance from Congress. Ironically, though, the White House is proving the stumbling block.

If the Administration were simply trying to tighten the belt on foreign aid, its backroom maneuvering toward that end would not seem so callous. But that is clearly not the case; President Reagan just recently requested more guns and assistance for several Latin American countries. The White House simply wants to pressure Israel to get but of Lebanon and change its policies in the occupied territories. Ultimately, Washington hopes to weaken support for Begin and usher the Labor opposition into power.

To many, such ends are not ill-advised. Besides, if the Administration should press allies like El Salvador and Guatemala to improve human rights conditions, as some contend--why shouldn't it strongarm Israel? Such an analogy overlooks the fact that Israel is a democracy, unlike those Latin American countries where outside pressure is the only possible influence on a dictator. For all its weaknesses, the Jewish state must decide on its own what course to follow; if Israelis have had enough of Lebanon, the territories and Begin, they have the internal procedures to say so and act on their will. Far from weakening the current government, outside pressure in this case will only bolster it because Israelis tend to stand more strongly behind their leaders when they feel isolated.

It is pathetic that the Administration would gladly pressure Israel by withholding aid, but backs off implementing a similar policy in so many other countries. Besides pursuing its business-as-usual policy in Central America, Washington also recently decided to life the grain embargo against the Soviet Union. The White House brain trust erroneously believed such a policy could work but realistically calculated that the political backlash from farmers would be too great to maintain the ban. No such qualms sidetracked the Administration in its attempt to detail the Israel appropriations bill. Maybe the socalled "Jewish Lobby" on Capitol Hill isn't as powerful as some would have us believe.

Congress can still resist Administration pressure, and it's always possible the White House will learn a lesson if it gets enough public flak. Obviously, nothing is going to stop the Administration from using its influence in pragmatic fashion to counter problems as it sees them. Next time, though, Reagan and Co. might use what intelligence they have to pick on some bad guys instead.

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