News Analysis: Lawmakers Flex Foreign-policy Muscle As They Move Forward with Foreign Aid

As the foreign aid bill continues to make its way through Congress, lawmakers have inserted themselves squarely into the debate over the status of Jerusalem and other issues surrounding Arab-Israeli peace.

The Foreign Operations Appropriations Act cleared its next-to-last hurdle when the Senate passed the measure 87-9 last Friday.

The $13.6 billion foreign aid package approved by the Senate, like the one passed in the House earlier this year, includes what has become an annual $3 billion in aid to Israel and $2.1 billion for Egypt. The package also includes, for the first time, $78 million for the Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho.

Senate and House conferees will begin meeting as early as next week. Both houses must then approve the conference report.

Of the three amendments relating to the Middle East unanimously adopted by the Senate during three days of debate last week, only one is expected to draw opposition from the Clinton administration when the conferees meet.

The Israeli government is supporting all three amendments, according to officials at the Israeli Embassy here.

Although congressional debate on Middle East issues — and foreign policy in general — is not unusual during consideration of the foreign aid bill, the ongoing delicate negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors has heightened the importance of any action this year.

And, unlike in past years, the amendments passed this year are more germane to specific developments in the Middle East.

The most contentious of the three amendments passed by the Senate seeks to prevent American diplomats from meeting with members of the Palestinian authority anywhere in Jerusalem.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), also prohibits the U.S. Agency for International Development from opening any new offices in Jerusalem to dispense aid to Gaza or Jericho.

OPPOSITION IS BREWING

Although the Moynihan-Helms amendment did not spark floor debate, opposition is brewing at the White House and State Department, where officials fear the ban would bring the issue of Jerusalem prematurely into the forefront of discussions.

State Department officials plan to weigh in against the amendment when the House-Senate conference committee begins its work.

According to the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the question of Jerusalem is supposed to be left to final-status negotiations that will begin within two years.

The issue of aid to Palestinians being channeled through Jerusalem came to the fore last month when State Department officials confirmed AID was considering an office in eastern Jerusalem to dispense financial assistance to Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho.

Israeli officials and members of Congress protested the plan on the grounds that it would prejudge the final status of Jerusalem.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem currently houses AID workers who administer financial assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank. However, now that Palestinians have limited autonomy, there is a belief that any future assistance should be dispensed from Gaza and Jericho directly.

An administration official traveling with Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the Middle East this week said the administration has “categorically ruled out” opening an office in eastern Jerusalem, according to media reports.

In the Jewish organizational world, both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Zionist Organization of America actively supported the Helms-Moynihan amendment.

AIPAC President Steve Grossman expressed his support for what he described as a “timely amendment which strengthens Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s eternal, undivided capital.”

ZOA Chairman Morton Klein praised the Senate, saying, “There should be no political institutions meeting with Palestinians in Jerusalem which would challenge or compromise Israel’s sovereign rule over Jerusalem.”

But not all Jewish groups support the measure. Peace Now’s political director and founder, Mark Rosenblum, said it is “premature” to say whether he will lobby against the Helms-Moynihan amendment.

PEACE NOW JOINS AIPAC. ZOA TO PRAISE SENATE

“This is an issue for Arafat and Rabin that has been complicated by statements by Arafat and (by) serious attempts (by Jews) to settle in East Jerusalem,” he said. “Arafat and Rabin need to come to a just understanding on how to not make Jerusalem a frontal issue now.”

However, Peace Now joined AIPAC and ZOA in praising the Senate for using the debate over the foreign aid bill to bolster provisions calling for Palestinian compliance with the peace accords.

An amendment authored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) prohibits the United States from sending any aid to the Palestinians until the PLO amends the sections of its covenant calling for the destruction of the State of Israel.

The Specter amendment also prevents the president from certifying PLO compliance with the peace accords without congressional oversight.

Under current law, the PLO only has to convene the Palestine National Council in order to meet Congress’ definition of compliance.

If the Specter amendment emerges intact, which analysts say is most likely, the PLO essentially has six months to amend its covenant before the next time President Clinton must certify that the PLO is complying with the accords.

“The Specter amendment will only enhance the potential likelihood of a real peace,” said Klein, whose organization has actively lobbied Congress to monitor the PLO commitments. “Arafat and the PLO must have their feet held to the fire,” he said.

Peace Now’s Rosenblum also said the PLO’s “feet must be held to the fire” to amend the covenant. Both AIPAC and Peace now worked to get passage of the Specter amendment.

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