Posted on June 19, 1995 in Washington Watch

While the Palestine National Authority and the Israeli government work toward a critical June 30 deadline to phase in implementation of some aspects of their peace agreement, that date has an equally critical meaning for the peace process here in the U.S. By June 30 Congress will decide whether or not to continue U.S. foreign assistance to the PNA.

U.S. assistance to the PNA is conditioned by the terms of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act (MEPFA) which Congress passed in 1994. According to the Act, in order for the PNA to continue receiving foreign aid from the U.S., the State Department must certify to Congress that the PNA has complied with conditions that Congress established in the act.

Some of the now well-known conditions require that the PLO:

· condemn individual acts of terrorism and violence;
· amend its National Covenant to eliminate all references calling for the destruction of Israel.
· and renounce the Arab League boycott of Israel and urge the nations of the Arab League to end the boycott.

On June first, the U.S. State Department, as required by the MEPFA, reported to Congress on PLO compliance with the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DoP). By June 30 Congress must decide whether or not to accept the State Department conclusion that the Palestine National Authority is in compliance with the MEPFA and therefore eligible for continued U.S. economic assistance.

Because of high-profile activity by enemies of the PLO and the peace process, some observers are concerned that getting Congressional approval for the report may not be easy.

This is the first time that compliance with the MEPFA will be evaluated by the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives. Leading Republicans in both chambers have been strong critics of the peace process. Supported by some wealthy right-wing members of the American Jewish community, neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists, these Republicans are more inclined toward Likud positions regarding the peace process and the Palestinians.

The powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, is an avid foe of U.S. support for the Palestinians. In a recent letters to supporters, Helms stated his position on aid to Israel and the PLO in the following and sometimes wild accusations:

“The PLO has not lived up to its commitments under the accords signed in September of 1993. Specifically, it has not taken a strong stand against Palestinian terrorism, and has not amended the PLO charter to eliminate calls for the destruction of Israel. Moreover, the PLO has wasted the monies afforded it thus far …the PLO’s coffers are being emptied by mismanagement and fraud. The world has not only invested financial resources in the Palestinian Authority, but also its hopes for peace. The Palestinian leadership has broken that trust, and I intend to hold them responsible for their broken promises.”

Of course, Helm’s allegations are unfounded. Some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff are completely baffled by his rhetoric – and worry that this is a strong indication of his firm opposition to continuing U.S. economic assistance to the PNA.

And, in a move that has caused genuine concern in the Congress and the Administration, the ever-irresponsible Republican Senator from New York, Alfonse D’Amato, introduced a new version of the MEPFA for consideration by the new Congress. This new act which the Senator hopes to pass before June 30 will put even more restraints on U.S. support to the Palestinians.

In his proposed new legislation, D’Amato flatly states his opinion that “the PLO is not complying with its responsibilities. It has failed to restrain radicals in Gaza; it failed to change the PLO Covenant….”

The Senator goes on to add still other new “failures” which had not been considered before as part of compliance. He makes the unsubstantiated claim that the PLO has “failed to come clean with the amount of its assets,” and that it has “failed to confine administrative offices to Gaza, while allowing them to proliferate, illegally, in Jerusalem.”

There is much else that one would find outrageous in D’Amato’s bill, but the bottom line is that its legislative intent is to deny any and all U.S. funds to the PLO or the PNA. In an effort to deny any claim to sovereignty which the PNA might raise, D’Amato’s effort to only allows U.S. funding through American private voluntary organizations (PVOs) which run projects in Gaza and the West Bank. Even semi-private Palestinian institutions which are in any way connected to the PNA are denied “direct or indirect” access to any U.S. funds.

D’Amato’s bill would also require that U.S. aid the Palestinians “for any single year shall not exceed the largest total contribution by a member of the Arab League to the Palestinian authority in the previous calendar year.” In a provision which essentially calls for a Palestinian civil war, all U.S. funds to the Palestinians would cease if the PLO worked out any arrangement with Hamas. And, adding insult to injury, the bill would divert 40% of the total aid allotted to Palestinians and give it to Israel to increase its security apparatus against Palestinian threats.

As bizarre as this entire effort may seem, it is being proposed by a leading Republican Senator who chairs one of the body’s more important committees and who has strong backing from right-wing Jewish leaders. The bill will almost certainly not pass, but it serves as a clear indication as to how preposterous the level of debate on PNA compliance with the DoP can be.

On the House side, the situation is even more unpredictable. Congressman Ben Gilman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has not been a helpful ally of the peace process. At the opening of the new Congressional session, Gilman gave in to pressure from right-wing Jewish constituents and ordered the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the PLO’s “secret assets” to prove that the PLO in fact had billions of dollars in reserves and therefore had no need of U.S. assistance. The GAO study, which will cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, unsurprisingly turned up no evidence of such funds, so Gilman has attempted to quietly drop the matter.

With so many new and unpredictable new Congressmen, many of whom are highly conservative and hostile to foreign aid in general, no one is betting on how the House will vote on PLO compliance.

Arab Americans have testified for continued assistance to the PNA and the Clinton Administration has also taken a strong stand in favor of continued support. In the compliance report, the State Department, while acknowledging that more can be done by the PLO, states quite directly:

“The Administration believes that the PA and the PLO elements under `Arafat’s control have abided by the commitments undertaken in September 1993 and those in, and resulting from, the good faith implementation of the DoP.”

The Administration further argues that to stop U.S. aid to the Palestinians would effectively eliminate the U.S. from any possible role in support of the peace process.

The Israeli government has also been strong in its support of continued U.S. aid to the Palestinians and have on a number of occasions stated to the Congress that it finds the PLO in compliance. Shlomo Gur, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington noted that “the trend [in PLO compliance] is improving. We have to encourage it.”

Even more supportive were the words of Uri Savir, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who told Israeli supporters in the U.S. that they should support continued aid because “we should ensure that Congress approves aid to the Palestinians, especially after their performance has improved.”

And in a strongly-worded rebuke to those in the American Jewish community who challenge the PLO compliance, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said last month that it was “none of their business.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and most other leading American Jewish groups also support the continuation of aid, but they opposed by the increasing vocal and muscular Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and other right-wing groups which not only oppose the PLO, but also the entire peace process and the Labor government in Israel.

This was recently noted in a sharp attack on the Jewish right wing in a national Jewish newspaper. The article argues: “Let’s admit that the fight over PLO compliance is about the fight over the peace process….” And it goes on to add,

“Under the guise of insisting on a role for American Jews in questions regarding PLO compliance with the peace accords, many American Jews are actually doing their best to subvert a peace process they don’t support. If the PLO is found to be in noncompliance when American funding runs out in June, the fragile peace process could be wrecked.”

This sharpening (and increasingly open) internal debate in the American Jewish community has had a negative impact on groups like AIPAC, which nominally support the peace process. Because the enemies of peace a playing on long-established fears and anti-Palestinian bias, they have not been forcefully challenged. Thus, AIPAC will support PLO aid but will modify its views so as not to be deemed “too pro-Palestinian.” Therefore, they are calling for a toughening of conditions in the MEPFA. While absolutely not approaching the absurdity of D’Amato’s effort, AIPAC does seek to toughen and further unbalance the already unfair and one-sided conditions on aid that are imposed only on the PLO.

Extremists like D’Amato and Helms and those who support them, won’t win everything they want but, because they will not be challenged with force or in public in the Senate, they will skew the debate in a negative direction. Helms’ chief aide, Danielle Pletka said as much recently when she noted that the MEPFA

“legislation this year is not going to look the same as it looked last year. Last yea, we believed we should give the PLO the benefit of the doubt, and they have not performed up to snuff.”

Pletka is now working on new legislation that will even more severely strengthen the restrictions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

The situation in Washington is very much like the state of the Palestinian-Israeli talks in the Middle East. Because of the asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians, as we approach June 30, the Israelis will squeeze the Palestinians to accept less and less. The Israelis will maintain that the pressure they feel from their right-wing and settler movements restrain their ability to withdraw fully from the West Bank or even partly from some areas like Hebron. In effect, they will cede control of the process to their right wing and settler movements and allow them to set de facto limits on the negotiations.

The same asymmetry of power in Washington is giving the right wing the ability to set even more humiliating and one-sided conditions on the PNA’s receipt of U.S. economic assistance. Of course, there is no discussion about Israeli compliance (or lack thereof), which only adds further insult to the injury done by the conditions imposed on the PLO.

A result of these one-sided processes, the results of both the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo, and the Congressional debate in Washington will be deformed by ideology and away from reality.

The Palestinians will get something – but not what was hoped for on September 13, 1993, and certainly not what they have earned. The question is whether it will be enough to maintain any momentum toward a real peace in which Palestinian needs will be realized and met.

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