Posted on December 19, 1994 in Washington Watch

A political storm is brewing in Washington, involving the peace process. The major parties to this developing struggle are the U.S. Department of State, and the pro-Labor and pro-Likud lobbies in the U.S. and their supporters in the U.S. Congress.

What has set the stage for this conflict was the December 1, 1994 issuance of a document that has become known as the “PLO Compliance Report.” In the report, the State Department reviews PLO behavior over the past six months in an effort to determine whether or not the Palestinian leadership is honoring its commitment to the Middle East peace process.

The State Department is required to submit this report to Congress under the terms of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act of 1994. According to this Act, all U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority is conditional on the PLO’s:

a) renouncing the Arab League boycott of Israel;
b) urging the nations of the Arab League to end the boycott of Israel;
c) cooperating with efforts undertaken by the President of the United States to end the Arab League boycott of Israel;
d) condemning individual acts of terrorism and violence;
e) amending its National Covenant to eliminate all references calling for the destruction of Israel.

The 13 page State Department report covers the period from June 1, 1994 to November 30, 1994, and for the most part focuses on the PLO’s response to violence against Israelis and the PLO’s “commitment to seek a peaceful and negotiated settlement” with Israel.

While noting, what it terms, some “difficulties and failures (especially with regard to changing the “PLO’s Covenant”), the State Department report “confirms the PLO’s commitment” and notes that the organization has “abided by its commitment to renounce terrorism.” Nevertheless, the report notes that this last area (being Israel’s most central concern) presents the PLO “with its most difficult challenge” and the report concludes that the Palestinian Authority “should do more in this critical area” and that, for its part, the U.S. Administration “will continue to press the PLO to take the necessary actions to prevent acts of violence, to bring those responsible to justice and to abide by all its other commitments.”

Since the report is only mildly critical and is genuinely supportive of PLO efforts, it appears to be the intent of the State Department that the President certify the PLO as being in compliance, so that U.S. economic aid can continue. It is this unspoken subtext to the report that has caused a flare-up among pro-Israel groups.

***

It should be noted, however, that all of this discussion ignores several fundamental questions that will never be asked in Washington:

· Why is there no legislation requiring that aid to Israel be conditional on its compliance with the terms of the peace process?

· Is Israel in compliance with its commitments?

· What has happened to the U.S. aid to the Palestinians? And is it worth jumping through hoops to get it?

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The origin of the Compliance Act in question is the result of the work of the pro-Israel lobbyists and their supporters in Congress.

Because the pro-Israel lobbies have spent the past 20 years building a political powerhouse based on the war against the Palestinians, for a number of reasons the lobbies are finding it difficult to simply accept the movement toward peace in good faith and work to support the peace process. Among these reasons are:

· They have built a national constituency among members of the Jewish community and in Congress based on a fear of Palestinians and opposition to their goals.

· Even those who have endorsed the peace process fear losing support in the Jewish community to pro-Likud forces, who are trying to portray them as “weak on the Palestinian issue.”

· Quite simply, their power was built on this fear of Palestinians and opposing cooperation with the Arab world, and power is never easy to surrender.

Instead of moving to remove the encumbering anti-Palestinian legislation of the past 20 years and whole-heartedly supporting U.S. aid to Palestinians, the largest pro-Israel group, AIPAC, and its supporters in Congress wrote new legislation that “conditionally” removes old sanctions against the PLO and links U.S. aid to the Palestinians to conditions that are difficult to achieve or interpret.

At this time, AIPAC is being pushed hard from the right by the very pro-Likud Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which has capitalized on latent anti Palestinian sentiment (created in some measure by AIPAC over the years) among many in the Jewish community and the knee-jerk support for such attitudes (also largely created by AIPAC) among many members of Congress.

Even before the Compliance Act was passed, the ZOA formed its own Peace Accords Monitoring Committee (PAM) in the Congress and quickly drew over 50 members to its ranks. The purpose of PAM was simply to monitor PLO compliance and pressure the Administration to force the PLO to continue to make one-sided concessions to Israel. And while both the Israeli government and the U.S. opposed the formation of PAM and the passage of the Compliance Act, AIPAC went along with both efforts out of fear of losing ground to the ZOA.

This dynamic has continued to the present day. Before the State Department released its compliance report, both the ZOA and AIPAC issued their own studies in an effort to shape the State Department’s findings at the PLO’s expense.

The AIPAC report, entitled “Problems in the PLO’s Compliance with its Commitments,” is sharply critical of the PLO performance in “meeting Israel’s security concerns” through its failure to take “Firm, effective action against…the terror of extremists…and incitement to violence against Israelis.” While nominally “pro-peace” (like the Labor government it says it supports), AIPAC attempts to walk the fine line of “supporting the peace process” and covering its rear flank against attacks from the ZOA that it is “caving in to the PLO.”

In a real sense, this is a pattern of behavior displayed by the Labor government itself. The net result is that the extreme right wing is driving the political debate and determining the political behavior of both the Labor government and its lobby in the U.S.

The ZOA report was issued on the November 28th and entitled “On the Eve of the State Department Report on PLO Compliance, the ZOA finds the PLO is not in compliance with Accords.” It is a shrill attack on 12 areas of PLO behavior, with most of the reporting based on false conclusions and disinformation. It blames the PLO for “violating its obligation”...to halt terrorist attacks by PLO groups, to refrain from hostile propaganda against Israel, to change the Covenant,” etc.

After the State Department report was released and it became clear that the U.S. was prepared to certify the PLO’s compliance, the ZOA immediately attacked the official U.S. report, terming it a “whitewash” that “ignores, minimizes and whitewashes the PLO’s numerous serious violations of the Accords.”

The ZOA’s President concludes:

“President Clinton has pledged $500 million to the PLO and he will be considering the State Department’s report as he decides whether or not to send that money to a group that has not always shown it has transformed itself from the terrorist organization it always was. We hope that the President will take into consideration Congressional opinion and the many serious flaws in the State Department’s report. As U.S. law appropriately requires, the PLO should not receive U.S. aid so long as the PLO is violating the accords, by not condemning terrorism, not punishing terrorists, not urging Palestinian Arabs to give up violence, and not changing the PLO Covenant, which calls for Israel’s destruction.”

Not to be outdone, but still seeking to walk its tightrope, AIPAC issued a statement of its own, expressing its “disappointment” with the State Department report and noting that “peace requires Arafat to change his conduct,” but the State Department “report fails to hold Arafat to a high enough standard.”

An interesting twist to this struggle between the ZOA and AIPAC for the best anti-PLO credentials, has been the fact that the Labor government immediately responded by attacking the AIPAC response as not being in the interest of peace. The Israeli Ambassador to Washington, in a conference call to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, personally urged them not to criticize the State Department report. And Israeli Foreign Ministry officials made it clear to Jewish pro-Israel lobbyists that the Israeli government sees continuing U.S. aid to Palestinians as important to maintaining the peace process.

Three days after its initial critical statement, AIPAC was forced to issue a clarification which, while not backing away from its prior criticism of the PLO, notes that AIPAC “is not opposed to the continuation” of U.S. aid to the Palestinians, since this aid is “critically needed to improve the desperate economic situation in the impoverished Gaza Strip.”

Other Jewish organizations, for example, Americans for Peace Now, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, did issue statements more favorable to the State Department report and called for a continuation of U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

***

The next step in this process will come on January 1, when President Clinton is required by the Compliance Act to accept or reject the State Department report and to certify (or not) the PLO as qualified for continuing U.S. aid. It is almost certain that Clinton will certify continuation of the aid. But the matter will not rest there. When the new Congress convenes in January, PAM members (under the strong influence of the ZOA, which founded the group) will continue to pressure the Administration and will most probably call for Congressional hearings on the PLO’s compliance.

Since Senator Jesse Helms, the incoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senators Arlen Specter and Richard Shelby (the authors of the PLO Compliance Act) are all members of PAM, there will be pressure to convene such hearings – even over the objections of the U.S. Administration and the Israeli government.

The lessons in all of this are clear. The asymmetry of political power in Washington continues to shape the debate one Middle East issues. Influential pro-Israel groups are largely responsible for generating the political pressure on Congress and on the Administration to deal with compliance issues in a one-sided fashion.

For the peace process to be real and for the U.S. to be able to truly serve as an even-handed arbiter, there must be a constituency for a balanced peace. It is clear, by their behavior, that the major pro-Israel groups (AIPAC included, despite its statements to the contrary) are not committed to balance. They, like the leadership in Israel, are still driven by their prejudices and fear of the past. They expect Palestinians, all other Arabs and even Arab Americans to change, but have not made the same change themselves.

This does not mean that the peace process will end, but the one-sided pressure exerted by right wing groups has distorted and disfigured the peace process, to the point where it has become an unrecognizable caricature of the process observers hoped for just over a year ago.

(Next week’s article will be a look at other unasked questions: what of Israel’s compliance to its commitments under the peace process and what of U.S. aid to the Palestinians.)

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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