Israelis unhappy with U.S. loan, seek donations


JERUSALEM -- Only hours after the United States finally approved a long-disputed $400 million in loan guarantees for housing Soviet immigrants, Israeli officials warned yesterday that the sum was grossly insufficient.

"In fact, it's a very small sum that only accounts for 3 or 4 percent of the overall figure," said the immigrant absorption minister, Yitzhak Peretz.

As he spoke, leaders of the Jewish Agency, the semipublic office with the largest role in immigration matters, were meeting here, working out agreement on the private fund-raising goal for the coming year.

After days of debate, the agency's leaders said they had decided to seek $1 billion in donations from the world's Jews -- 60 percent more than was raised in the current year's fund-raising drive, already a record.

The new figure would have to be approved by fund-raisers in the United States and Europe. If past practice holds true, American Jews would be asked to contribute about 70 percent of the $1 billion.

Last month, Israel's finance minister told a visiting U.S. official that Israel would also need another $10 billion in grants and loans from the U.S. government over the next few years. Washington's reception to that request was cool.

The Bush administration approved the $400 million in housing loan guarantees Wednesday after it had held up the package for a year while negotiating with Israel over assurances that the money would not be used to build housing in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip or in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

The guarantees will enable Israel to get commercial loans at lower rates.

The action came as Israeli officials are lowering their estimate of the numbers of immigrants expected this year because of the Persian Gulf war.

In the short term, officials say immigration this year is likely to be 25 percent lower than expected -- 300,000 people instead of the 400,000 projected earlier.

About 10,000 Soviet Jews have arrived here in the five weeks since the war began, compared with about 35,000 in December.

While fear of attack is an important reason Soviet immigration has dropped, there are others as well.

For one thing, on Jan. 1, Israel seriously reduced the financial benefits given to all new immigrants because the state could no longer afford what it had been offering.

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