Senators eye curbs on cluster bombs, widening matter beyond Israel"s use

Several Senate Democrats are renewing their push to curb the U.S. military’s use of weaponry responsible for civilian casualties in conflicts around the world — notably during the summer war between Israel and Lebanon — a proposal that has split the party’s presidential frontrunners.

Human rights groups long have lobbied to curtail the use of cluster bombs, which disperse “bomblets” over wide areas that can cause civilian deaths years after they are dropped. Democratic lawmakers joined the cause last fall amid growing controversy over Israel’s firing of older U.S.-supplied cluster bombs into Lebanon.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) offered a bill earlier this month that allows U.S. sales and transfers only of newer bombs with low error rates, expanding on a cluster-curbing amendment they offered last year.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) backed that plan while his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.), opposed it – a vote that looms as potential attack ad fodder in a 2008 campaign that is kicking off and going negative especially early.

“Perhaps unfortunately, the issue of cluster munitions came about so prominently by Israel’s use or misuse of cluster munitions in its conflict with Hezbollah,” Colby Goodman, a program manager at Amnesty International, said. “It was seen by some as a focus on criticizing Israel, but that wasn’t the intent.”

Bomblets have killed thousands of civilians in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Vietnam and during the current Iraq war. Yet international criticism of the estimated 100,000 Israeli bombs that failed to detonate in Lebanon have led many to associate Washington’s No. 1 ally in the Middle East with the weapons, complicating the task for Democrats who support Feinstein-Leahy while cozying up to Jewish-American voters.

“For Jewish-American activists who are active because of their concerns about Israel, they are, generally speaking, not going to want to see additional restrictions placed on Israel’s use of U.S. weaponry,” a source close to the Obama camp said.

Yet, the source noted, cluster munitions are “not by any means the highest-profile issue the community is concerned about,” pointing to Obama’s strong support for pressuring Iran on its nuclear program and placing conditions on aid to the new Palestinian government.

Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have courted the Jewish community in recent years, but Obama hardly is ceding ground to his primary rivals. The Illinoisan’s campaign recently signed a formal adviser on Jewish-American policy, and Obama will appear Friday at a Chicago policy forum of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the capital’s most influential pro-Israel group.

The conservative buffeting Obama recently endured over his childhood in majority-Muslim Indonesia has helped perpetuate the perception that Obama has a tougher row to hoe with Jewish voters. A survey last week by the Jerusalem newspaper Ha’aretz ranked him 17th out of 17 presidential candidates on a scale of friendliness to Israel.

The Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hadar Susskind, observed that Jewish-American groups have a heightened awareness of cluster weapons limits after human-rights groups called on Israel to cease deploying the bombs without mentioning other countries that use them.

“They are sensitive to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports that, for better or for worse, are often seen as one-sided or skewed by folks within the Jewish community,” Susskind said.

This weekend brought a leap forward on cluster-bomb curbs, as 46 countries at an international conference in Norway set a 2008 deadline for a pact ending use of the weapons.

The treaty gives a crucial boost to the Feinstein-Leahy bill. Both senators have criticized U.S. transfers of older, error-prone cluster bombs since before the Israel-Lebanon war, and began their legislative effort with their amendment to last year’s defense appropriations bill, which aimed to block the Pentagon from approving cluster bomb detonation in civilian or refugee areas. Feinstein said this month that Israel’s misuse of the weapons partly inspired the bill.

Facing stiff opposition from the Bush administration, the amendment failed on the floor, with every Republican and 15 Democrats voting no, including Clinton, Biden and Dodd. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), now majority leader and majority whip, joined Obama in backing the proposal.

The director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division, Steve Goose, said the first Feinstein-Leahy push failed “primarily because it was depicted as an anti-Israel amendment.” Advocates of the new bill have begun outreach to Jewish-American groups to tamp down any misperceptions that the measure targets Israel, he added.

“This bill is aimed at U.S. policy, to make sure the U.S. takes a humanitarian stand when it comes to cluster munitions,” Goose, who attended the Norwegian conference, said.

Feinstein hailed that anti-clusters summit with a statement urging the Pentagon “to join in this effort and protect civilians from this lethal relics of war,” expressing disappointment that the U.S. joined Israel, Russia and China in boycotting the conference.

AIPAC is not taking a position on the cluster-bomb curbs this year, according to a spokesman for the group. Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein offered conditional approval of the Feinstein-Leahy bill: “I have no problem ensuring that our allies receive more effective and efficient cluster bombs … unless it would impact on our allies receiving cluster bombs they need at critical times.”

The cluster-weapons bill expands on last year’s language with a national security waiver that the president may invoke when bomb sales are deemed integral to the defense capability of U.S. allies. Bill supporters believe the waiver could win over 2008 hopefuls concerned about being portrayed as weak on national security for backing the ban.

For Leahy, who is also the Senate’s top foreign-operations appropriator, the crusade against clusters is a natural sequel to his longtime campaign to ban landmines. The Judiciary Committee chairman wrote the first anti-landmine legislation in 1992 and created the Leahy War Victims Fund to help civilians disabled by mines.

For Biden, who chairs the Foreign Relations panel to which the bill was referred, having jurisdiction over cluster bomb curbs may complicate the issue. He voiced support for the principles of the amendment last fall but called for an Armed Services Committee hearing on its effects on the military.

A Biden spokeswoman said the lawmaker will review the bill thoroughly before deciding how to approach it. Other sponsors of the cluster-weapons limits include Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).