JPOST: The Freedom Funder

Apr 18, 2011

By: Hilary Leila Krieger

Kay Granger says Israel is special when it comes to US financial support as the country is America's strongest ally in the region.

WASHINGTON – There’s an old saying about how to identify the sources of power and influence in this city: Follow the money. These days, when it comes to US policy on the Middle East, that dollar-strewn trail will lead you straight to the office of Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger.

Granger, an eight-term Republican who took over the US House appropriations foreign operations subcommittee this session, is now the one holding the purse strings determining everything from the State Department’s budget to how much aid Israel and its neighbors will receive. That’s always an important role, but with major shake-ups on both the home front and international scene, it’s even more pivotal.

As revolts rock the Arab world, particularly in countries headed by American allies who are reliant on US aid – and whom the United States is reliant on for oil and counter-terrorism cooperation – Congress is reconsidering how much money it sends to the region. And at home, a new freshman class of Republicans elected on promises of cutting government spending have been pushing so hard for cuts they’ve even on occasion rejected their own party leaders’ spending plans. As the dust settles on 2011 funding, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has released a proposal for FY 2012 calling for a reduction of more than 25 percent in the foreign operations budget.

Yet Granger isn’t fazed. “I applaud his attempt,” she said with her broad Texas twang, acknowledging that while some cuts will have to be made, allocations safeguarding US national security – funding for Israel among them – would be maintained. “I can make that argument over and over and win that argument.”

Granger has long been focused on national security, what with defense manufacturing giant Lockheed Martin residing in her district. She also counts a Jewish community dedicated to Israel among her constituents, as well as devoted evangelicals who trek to Capitol Hill each year to push for support for the Jewish state.

“Chairwoman Granger gets it. She’s an extremely intelligent, seasoned legislator with a clear worldview and a strong commitment to America’s national security,” said Democratic Congressman Steve Rothman, who serves on Granger’s subcommittee.

“Accordingly, she values highly the role that foreign aid plays in conjunction with US military operations.”

Rothman recalled traveling to Israel with Granger once as part of a Congressional trip.

“On a deeply personal level she has a powerful commitment to the US-Israel strategic relationship and historic friendship,” he said.

Granger, like Rothman, is also on the defense appropriations subcommittee, which in recent years has allocated tens of millions of dollars in joint US-Israeli missile defense projects. That comes on top of the approximately $3 billion in annual military aid Israel receives from the foreign operations budget that goes through Granger’s subcommittee, as spelled out in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the two countries under the George W. Bush administration.

Still, for much of the Washington pro-Israel community, Granger is a relatively fresh face without deep ties to many key players.

“I don’t have a relationship with her,” noted Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the current head of a pro-Israel political action committee.

“But I’m not worried – not in the least.”

He described her AIPAC voting record as “very, very good,” concluding, “I have no reason to believe that she will not continue to be a good supporter.”

Hadar Susskind, vice president of policy and strategy for J Street, also said that while his organization hadn’t worked particularly closely with the Congresswoman in the past, “Kay Granger has always appeared to be a very thoughtful and reasonable member.”

Despite the widespread Republican interest in cutting aid, Susskind indicated that Granger has indicated her support of aid for both Israelis and Palestinians – a position advocated by J Street.

If Granger is less well-known among pro-Israel activists in Washington, she’s not a unknown entity to Israeli politicians, who have hosted her on several trips to Israel. She first came to Israel in the early 1990s when she was mayor of Fort Worth and legendary former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek arranged a trip for her and other municipal chief executives to tour his city. A few years later she returned on a Congressional delegation headed by then speaker of the house Newt Gingrich to celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary, where she was welcomed by Binyamin Netanyahu. Though Netanyahu was only supposed to speak with the group for 45 minutes at a reception, he ended up inviting them over to his house and hosting them for more than four hours.

During Pessah, Granger is scheduled to make a reverse exodus from Israel to Egypt as she visits both countries to see firsthand the recent regional developments as part of an unusual bipartisan, bicameral delegation reflecting the urgency of the challenges facing the two countries and America’s role in addressing them. Before leaving, she sat down with The Jerusalem Post for her first interview with an Israeli newspaper since becoming subcommittee chairwoman.

What was your first trip to Israel like?

I was so surprised at what I saw. First of all, people don’t talk about Jerusalem as a beautiful city, [but it is] a beautiful city.

We talk more about all the conflict that’s going on. [There’s] also the size of Israel. I came back and every speech I gave that I talked about that trip I said, “You have to understand the size, the smallness of this country surrounded by countries that are so large and so dangerous.”

I said, “They live in a dangerous neighborhood,” and I never forget that.

What’s your vision for the committee?

“Though many people don’t see our subcommittee as a national security subcommittee, it definitely is. So with the funding, it’s very important that what is in our national security interest and the interest of our allies – Israel being top on that list – continue even as we look at cutting the budgets significantly. To keep that support and our commitment to Israel is very important to me, it’s very important to the subcommittee as a whole, but we’ve got to have the vote of the whole Congress.”

So do you think that Congress as a whole might not want to cut funding to Israel?

No, I really don’t, because we have a singular relationship with Israel. The Memorandum of Understanding puts Israel in a different position than our help for other countries. So I have to keep explaining that and making sure everyone understands that, particularly 87 new members of Congress.

So many of those new members identify with the Tea Party and are calling for sweeping cuts, particularly to foreign aid.

How do they see aid to Israel?

I think they see it very clearly and are continuing the bipartisan support.

Some who were concerned about Tea Party pressure to cut foreign aid suggested moving military aid to Israel from foreign appropriations to defense appropriations, which are less likely to be cut.

Is that idea still on the table?

I hope not. What I want to ensure is that funding for Israel [is maintained], but that it not be singled out, because I think it’s really at risk [that way]. Some of the people that suggested it be pulled out of foreign operations I think were well-intentioned, but I think they’re wrong because it makes Israel such a target, with so much attention just on Israel. I will continue to say it should be part of the funding for our front-line nations – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and now Mexico… I think that funding will stay secure.

Are you concerned by Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal, which makes massive spending cuts, including upwards of 25% of the foreign operations budget?

I think it’s good… Congressman Ryan’s budget doesn’t nibble around the edges.

It’s a very serious budget that goes after entitlements, which is the major problem with our expenditures today.

The way it affects our foreign assistance is, it clarifies that the foreign assistance we give is very minor compared to the discretionary spending. It’s about 5% of the discretionary spending, about 1% of the overall budget, but in polling we’ve taken, there are people who think it’s 30%. I’ve had people say, well if you just quit sending all that money to foreign countries we’d solve our problems, and of course we wouldn’t.

Could such a significant scaling back of foreign operations jeopardize America’s place in the world?

If it does, then the cuts are too deep. We have to make the case that our national security interests are served through this funding.

What about appropriations from the defense subcommittee for missile defense? Do you expect support to continue in this climate?

Continuing, absolutely. [There’s] great support. Iron Dome was the one that just had a successful launch. It’s very, very important.

Israel has long been interested in buying Lockheed Martin’s F-22 stealth bomber, whose sale to foreign countries is barred by law and production of which is due to end. Is there any circumstance in which Israel would be able to acquire that?

That’s really been a hard one, and I don’t see it changing right now. With the world situation the way it is, something could shift and change that, but rightnow I don’t see it.

Is there any chance of speeding up production of the F-35, which Israel is set to acquire once it’s produced?

If anything there’s more pressure for slowing it down, only because of costs.

But when we do that, when we say we’re going to keep funding but we’re going to stretch it out, then it adds to the cost. And that hurts our international partners, and I’m not in favor of that at all.

What’s going to happen this year with funding for the Palestinian Authority under a Republican-controlled Congress?

There is funding, primarily for security.

We believed that was important, and I continue to believe that’s important. I’ve been there and seen some of the security that’s occurring that we’re helping to fund. And I think overall it’s a help – it’s a help toward reaching a peace, if we can do that.

If the Palestinians go to the UN and seek a unilateral declaration of statehood as they’ve threatened, will that affect US aid to the PA?

It will, and that would be a very, very bad thing to do… It would be a very serious step. It also could affect our funding at the UN.

What’s the thinking on funding for Egypt?

It still matters what will be the makeup of the government after the elections, and as this progresses, the Muslim Brotherhood is the one that’s of most concern to us.

So whether the Muslim Brotherhood was part of a new Egyptian government would make a difference in whether the country receives US aid?

It would affect our attitude.

How has the Obama administration done so far in dealing with these uprisings?

I think at the beginning there was a stumbling [over] what’s going on, what do we say, but I think it’s a bit better now.

Do you support the Libya action?

I do. It’s a very difficult situation… Gaddafi, as we all know, is very dangerous, but watching who the rebels are, I think we have to vet that very carefully.

Who are these rebels? What are their ties to al-Qaida? How strong are those ties?

Has the Obama administration done enough on Iran? Does it have an opportunity with the unrest in the region?

I think we should be stronger. Iran is the greatest threat to the region, certainly, but it’s a threat to the world. And the nuclear weapons – we’ve given them way too much time.

So what should be done now?

The sanctions are working but there are still violations. I think by the sanctions and influencing the economy we made headway, but I would take a stronger stand.

How?

On the sanctions, there are still violations.

I think we should be much stronger in our reaction when we know there are violations. It’s just a very dangerous situation.

It’s not [a leadership] we can trust.

We know that. It’s not that we’re worried what they might do. They’ve said what they’re going to do: wipe Israel off the face of the earth. That’s not interpretation.

That’s what’s been said.

So should be measures other than sanctions taken?

The term we always say is that all the options are on the table, and I think that’s where we have to be. When you see this sort of shift that’s going on and unrest, that’s a time when those who are opposed to us could take stronger stands, because our attention could be diverted.

Does Congress think Israel should be doing more to advance the peace process?

I would say that we wish that Israel – I’m not going to say that Israel “should be” because we’re not on the ground there – but we wish both parties would push as hard as possible, it’s just so important, and with direct talks. I didn’t support the envoys and the people muddling around the middle of this and being the message carriers. I think the direct talks are far more important.

How have the demonstrations in the Middle East changed Israel’s image in America and its relationship with the US?

It’s been helped because all of us say, this is our strongest ally, this is the democracy in this region of the world. People have been reminded of that, so their feeling and their trust in Israel, the importance of Israel, has been strengthened.

 What’s your message for Israel during your visit?

That they’re still our strongest ally in the region. That the friendship and assistance is solid from the Congress, both the House and Senate and both Democrats and Republicans.

 Note: This interview was edited and condensed.