Posted on July 28, 1997 in Washington Watch
As the Clinton Administration struggles to develop new initiatives to restore trust and confidence in the peace process, recent actions by the U.S. Congress have not contributed either to building that trust or to projecting and protecting the role of the U.S. as an even-handed honest broker.
For a Congress that advocates frugality in its attitude toward foreign aid and protectiveness in its concern for U.S. economic interests, many of these congressional actions are confounding and counterintuitive.
Taken individually, each of these initiatives displays a lack of balance. Collectively, they are shockingly excessive and gratuitous. Worse still, many of these recent congressional efforts, if implemented, can have the effect of sabotaging the search for peace in the Middle East. To its credit, the Administration has opposed and fought against most of these Congressional actions and has pledged to block their implementation. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the extent to which Congess can play a negative role by pressing and boxing the Administration into a political corner.
During the next few weeks I will review some of these various congressional initiatives and then complete this series with an analysis of how and why Congress is behaving as it is.
This week I will examine congressional resolutions that directly impede the peace process.
Actions Affecting Jerusalem
Historically, successive U.S. Administrations have refused to recognize Israel’s claim to have Jerusalem as its exclusive capital. They have also refused to accept the Palestinian claim to a capital in East Jerusalem. After Israelis and Palestinians signed a peace agreement, the Clinton Administration became more adamant that no outside party take any action that might prejudice the outcome of final status talks and impede the search for peace.
Recent actions taken by Congress, however, not only press the Administration to violate the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian accords by unilaterally accepting the Israeli claim to exclusive control over Jerusalem, they also are designed to box U.S. diplomacy into a corner in order to force the issue.
With the House Concurrent Resolution relating to the 30th Anniversary of the Reunification of the City of Jerusalem (H.CON. 60), Congress, once again, presses the Administration to accept the Israeli claim to Jerusalem.
The resolution’s operative language reads:
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that the Congress–
(1) calls upon the President and the Secretary of State to affirm publicly as a matter of United States policy that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel; and
(2) urges United States officials to refrain from any actions that contradict this policy.
Congressional amendments to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (H.R. 1757), which includes the State Department Authorization, are even more egregious in that they prescribe specific U.S. actions to enforce the Israeli claim. Section 1709 of the Bill authorizes the appropriation of $25 million for fiscal year 1998 and $75 million for fiscal year 1999 “for the construction of a United States Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel.”
The Bill goes on to press the Administration in furtherance of Israel’s claim, noting that:
None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this division may be available for the publication of any official government document which lists countries and their capital cities unless the publication identifies Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Going even further to enforce the Israeli claim to Jerusalem and to deny any legitimacy to the Palestinian claim to the city is a section in the Foreign Operations FY98 Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2159) which micromanages the conduct of U.S. diplomats in a series of bizarre instructions. The Bill mandates that:
None of U.S. funds provided “may be obligated or expended to create in any part of Jerusalem a new office or any department, or agency of U.S. government for the purpose of considering official U.S. government business with the Palestinian National Authority.”
Meetings, on these issues, between U.S. officers and employees and Palestinians “should continue to take place in locations other than Jerusalem.”
The Bill, however, affords an exception allowing U.S. officers and employees to meet in Jerusalem with Palestinian on other subjects, “have social contact and have incidental discussions.”
While the above restrictions on diplomatic contact in Jerusalem have the effect of law and are, therefore, forced on U.S. officials whose ability to operate in Jerusalem is severely constrained, the Clinton Administration has correctly refused to endorse the congressionally mandated recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stating that “it is unwise for the United States to take actions that could be interpreted as prejudicing sensitive matters, such as Jerusalem, that the parties themselves have agreed should be decided in final status talks.”
The Administration knows that any move by the U.S. to recognize the Israeli claim prior to the completion of the peace process would:
Â· sabotage the peace process;
Â· destroy the credibility of the U.S. as a negotiator; and
Â· damage U.S. standing throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
Sanctions Against Syria
In April of last year, the President signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which included a provision allowing for sanctions against governments accused of supporting terrorism. Responding to Administration concerns, the bill contained provisions authorizing the Department of the Treasury, in consultation with the State Department, to issue regulations allowing for some exceptions to the prohibitions.
In order to sustain Syrian engagement in the peace process and recognizing the key role that Syria played in the coalition effort to liberate Kuwait, the Administration has used the flexibility provided in the Act to permit U.S. engagement and private investment in Syria.
H.R.748, which recently passed in the House, removes Executive Branch flexibility and thereby mandates complete sanctions against Syria. A companion resolution is on the Senate calendar. Language that will have similar implications also appears in the Senate passed version of H.R. 1757 (S.903)—The Foreign Relations Authorization Act.
If the Administration does not convince the Congress to ease its stance and the sanctions are implemented against Syria, the Syrian-Israeli track in the peace process and U.S. diplomacy in the broader Middle East will be seriously impaired.
Anti-Arab Boycott Efforts
Supporters of Israel have long engaged in pressuring politicians to take steps against the Arab boycott of Israel. As a result, they have succeeded in having the U.S. take Israel’s side in this matter. There is now a U.S. law which prohibits U.S. firms from honoring the boycott and there are several penalties imposed on violators.
But Congress is now pushing harder to pressure Arab states by both accelerating their anti-boycott campaign and by seeking to tie U.S. arms sales to ending the boycott.
In a “Sense of the Congress” amendment to the Foreign Operations bill, the Senate spells out its policy that: “the Arab League countries should immediately and publicly renounce the primary boycott of Israel and the secondary and tertiary boycott of American firms that have commercial ties with Israel.” The amendment goes on to urge the President to, “take into consideration the participation of any recipient country in the primary boycott of Israel . . . when determining whether to sell weapons to said country.” And more ominously threatens to, “encourage the allies and trading partners of the United States to enact laws prohibiting businesses from complying with the boycott and penalizing businesses that do comply.”
While this amendment is a “Sense of the Congress” and, therefore, is not binding on the Administration, it shows how far this Congress will go to jeopardize U.S.-Arab relations in order to pass pro-Israel legislation.
The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act
Immediately following the September 13, 1993 signing on the White House lawn, Members of Congress promised to reconsider the status of the anti-Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) legislation they passed during the 1980s.
Instead of rescinding this anti-Palestinian legislation, Congress passed MEPFA which gives the President the authority to provisionally suspend the law restricting U.S. contact with the PLO thereby allowing for U.S. diplomatic relations and foreign aid to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). MEPFA places a series of requirements on the PNA as pre-requisites to continued U.S. contact and aid.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on MEPFA notes that “there is no comparable section of U.S. law where Israeli commitments and compliance are monitored.”
The ‘requirements’ mandated by Congress and currently in place include that the PNA:
(1) renounce the Arab boycott of Israel and work to end it
(2) refrain from making statements that question Israel’s right to exist or urge armed
conflict against Israel
(3) disavow and nullify the PLO covenant
(4) establish a Palestinian police force and a judicial system for apprehending terrorists
and transferring them to Israel
(5) insure the absence of terrorists in their ranks
(6) stop any financial or training assistance to any terrorists
(7) cooperate with the Israelis in preempting terrorism, apprehending terrorists and
transferring captured terrorists to Israel
(8) disarm unlicensed citizens
(9) not open any offices in Jerusalem
(10) provide information about any U.S. citizens previously held hostage by the
(11) take no steps to change the status of Jerusalem, West Bank or Gaza Strip pending the
outcome of permanent status negotiations
These limitations are blatantly one sided and clearly excessive. This is even more the case since there is not a mechanism in place tying Israel’s billions of dollars of aid to its non-compliance with agreements.
Just as the Israelis complain that the Palestinians are not always complying with the terms of the agreements, the Palestinians have submitted to Congress 34 specific areas where the Israelis are in violation of their agreements with the Palestinians.
But Congress, which insists that U.S. aid must be tied to compliance, will not act on Israel’s behavior.
Congress’ message to the Palestinians is clear: “your compliance is required and we will enforce it. Israeli compliance, or the lack thereof, is not our concern.”
As a result, Congress subverts the negotiating process by inserting itself as the enforcer of the peace agreements for only one side, and the role of the U.S. as an honest broker is placed in jeopardy and U.S. credibility is threatened.
While some in Congress now seek to further encumber MEPFA by imposing more severe requirements on the Palestinians, others argue that it should be allowed to expire.
The consequences of not renewing MEPFA are dangerous:
Â· contact with the PLO would become illegal;
Â· the Palestinian office in Washington would be forced to close; and
Â· all diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Palestinian National Authority would cease.
In all four instances noted above, the consequences of congressional meddling can be devastating to both the search for peace and to U.S. interests and diplomacy in the Middle East. The Administration knows this and, therefore, is attempting to confront these legislative efforts.
Next week I will examine what Congress does with U.S. foreign aid programs to the Middle East.
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