A month and a day before an armada of U.S. Air Force transports secretly airlifted to Israel the last group of Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Sudan, all 100 members of the U.S. Senate signed a letter to President Reagan urging prompt action to save them.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who organized the appeal, said in an interview Monday that he marveled that his often-talkative colleagues kept the matter secret until the evacuation was completed.
The airlift of more than 500 Ethiopian Jews took place Friday.
“I think it’s unprecedented that 100 senators knew something and did something of value without publicizing it,” Cranston said.
Done in One Day
The letter was sent on Feb. 21, after every senator signed it in a single day. Cranston said he personally obtained about 80 of the signatures and that Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) obtained the rest.
The same day, Cranston sent a separate letter to his colleagues urging them to keep the matter secret. “We ended up with 106 signatures,” he said. “Some were so anxious to sign they signed twice.”
Meanwhile, at a Los Angeles news conference Monday, initial credit for spurring the airlift was claimed by Phil Blazer, publisher of an area Jewish newspaper, and State Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys). In January, they said, they chartered a plane for a privately financed Falasha rescue mission and were ready to carry the effort off until the State Department urged them not to. However, the San Fernando Valley-financed effort proved to be “the catalyst” for the successful U.S. effort, the two men said.
They explained that after agreeing not to go ahead on their own, they contacted Cranston, who obtained the senators’ signatures.
Bush’s Plea to Numeiri
Permission for last week’s successful evacuation was received by Vice President George Bush from Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri during Bush’s trip to African famine areas at the beginning of this month.
The Sudanese leader had been quoted in a newspaper interview as saying the people were free to go provided they did not go to Israel. However, the Air Force took the evacuees directly there. It was not clear whether Bush told Numeiri the intended airlift route.
Cranston said he has no way of knowing what part the senators’ letter played in Reagan’s decision to press for the evacuation or in Numeiri’s decision to permit it. But an aide to the senator said that Bush’s discussion with Numeiri came at a time when the United States was holding up $200 million in foreign aid funds for Sudan, money that has since been released.