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U.S. to Investigate Israel’s Treatment of Palestinian Workers

The Israeli government and pro-Israel groups have expressed dismay at U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter’s decision last week to accept an American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee petition urging him to investigate Israel’s treatment of Palestinian laborers.

If Israel is found to have violated recognized standards for workers by mistreating Palestinians, it could lose its ability to export products duty-free to the United States under the 12-year-old Generalized System of Preferences program.

Five other countries are also being investigated following other petitions filed with the trade office. They are Syria, Haiti, Burma, Malaysia and Liberia. The Central African Republic will again be investigated this year, as in 1987.

“This is the first step in determining whether these countries should be denied special access to the U.S. market on the basis of their labor practices,” Yeutter said Thursday in making the announcement.

Hearings are set for Oct. 3 to 5, with a final decision to be announced April 1.

Israeli Embassy spokesman Yosef Gal said Israel “regrets” the U.S. decision and that the two principal charges against Israel were not summarily dismissed. He termed the accusations “baseless.”

But he said he does not “see this as a major issue” that could damage American ties with Israel. “U.S.-Israeli relations are too strong and too deep for this attempt by the ADC to disrupt us,” Gal said.

A trade representative source said that Israeli exports to the United States in 1987 totaled $486 million.

OTHER PETITIONS REJECTED

In the past, the only countries whose U.S. duty-free status has been rescinded are Nicaragua and Romania, while the trade statuses of Paraguay and Chile are under suspension.

This year, Yeutter rejected petitions to investigate E1 Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey.

The trade representative source said the 1974 Trade Act, as amended, sets a “low thresh-old for accepting petitions for review” and allows the public to request an inquiry.

The American-Arab committee petition was accepted, the source said, because the trade representative “could not refute the charges as either irrelevant or factually wrong.”

The source said that for a formal review to be granted, “charges have to be relevant to the criteria we look at it.”

Those criteria include the right of labor to organize; the right to have collective bargaining arrangements; the right to protection for child labor; the right to health and safety standards, as well as to a minimum wage; and the right to protection from compulsory or forced labor.

The American-Arab committee elected to accuse Israel of impinging on the rights of Palestinian workers to organize; to work under basic standards of health and safety; and to a minimum wage.

The source added that “all levels” of the trade representative’s review process, leading to the formal inquiry, found the 12-page petition acceptable.

In addition to the American-Arab committee petition, 10 members of Congress had written Yeutter urging him to investigate the treatment of workers in about 13 countries, including Israel. Among them were Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

AFL-CIO PROTESTS MOVE

Harsh reaction from pro-Israel groups, including the AFL-CIO, followed Yeutter’s decision to accept the petition.

The labor group supported petitions to probe four of the countries, but not Liberia and Israel.

“If you have a country that is facing terrorism. annihilation of your own country, and despite these conditions you maintain a multiracial trade union, and allow 38 unions and union organizations to form over 21 years of jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank… that country is not massively violating workers’ rights,” said Adrian Karatnycky, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO’s international affairs department.

“By the standards of the Middle East, it is preposterous for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to criticize Israel,” Karatnycky said.

He urged Yeutter to “investigate the Arab dictatorships which totally control workers and thoroughly deny freedom of association.”

U.S. Jewish leaders generally criticized the American-Arab committee petition as politically motivated.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, termed it “propaganda warfare.”

He said his group released a study in 1987 that assessed rights of Palestinian women in Israel and the territories, and concluded that Israel’s treatment of them was “far superior to the conditions (for them) in all of the surrounding Arab countries.”

“If this is to be an objective inquiry . . . then let them study what is going on in the Arab countries,” Tanenbaum argued.

LABOR COMMITTEE TO TESTIFY

Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, called the Arab committee’s charges “spurious” and pointed to the fact that aside from European Community member states, Israel is the “only country” that has a Free Trade Area agreement with the United States.

Lifton added that “most Palestinian residents of the territories are represented by the Histadrut,” Israel’s main trades union.

Jewish Labor Committee President Herb Magidson termed the Arab group’s petition “a thinly veiled political attack on the State of Israel and the Office of the Trade Representative should have recognized it.”

Magidson wrote a letter Aug. 12 to Hiram Lawrence, General System of Preference executive director, asking him to reject the petition. His organization, founded in 1934 as the Jewish liaison to the trades union movement, plans to testify at the October hearings.

Pointing out that there are 31 independent trade unions on the West Bank and seven on the Gaza Strip, Magidson termed Israel “the only democratic country in the Middle East and the only state with a free trade union movement.”

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