Senior Israeli and Palestine Liberation Organization officials traveled to Capitol Hill together last week to press for continued financial support for the peace process.
What they encountered, however, was an unexpected grilling from two U.S. senators who were sharply critical of the PLO for failing to comply with its peace agreements.
Uri Savir, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Ahmed Korei, an economic specialist with the Palestinian Authority, met with Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.) on Jan. 11.
According to Capitol Hill sources, the senators told Korei, also known as Abu Alla, that PLO violations of its peace accords with Israel is jeopardizing millions of dollars in promised U.S. aid.
“The PLO needs to fulfil its commitments. The way it is right now, it’s going to be very difficult getting a majority vote” to support aid to the PLO, the senators told the visitors, according to a Capitol Hill aide.
When Israel and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the Clinton administration pledged $500 million over five years to the PLO.
So far the PLO has received $70 million in direct assistance, according to State Department officials.
Lieberman and Mack co-sponsored legislation in the last Congress that cleared the way for the United States to give aid to the PLO.
That legislation, which requires the State Department to review PLO compliance every six months in order to assure continued aid, is due to expire June 30.
Since the legislation passed soon after the historic Israeli-PLO accord agreement, all three State Department reports have drawn fire from some members of Congress and the Jewish community for being too lenient.
Over the next six months, lawmakers, before they approve future funding, are expected to take a closer look at whether the PLO has complied with its agreements with Israel.
The increasing scrutiny comes at a time when congressional leaders have expressed skepticism in general about aid programs.
With these concerns in mind, staffers on both sides of the aisle have begun to draft new legislation that would require the PLO to amend its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel and do more to prevent and renounce terrorism.
Current legislation cites an expectation of compliance but does not give Congress the ability to withhold funds. The law says that the White House has final say on whether the PLO receives aid.
Many members of Congress want to see stricter compliance, but at the same time, there is a widespread belief that peace with the Palestinians rests on a strong PLO that requires aid dollars.
“There will be no PLO if there is no aid. But on the other hand, there will be no peace if there’s no compliance,” a congressional aide said of the dilemma lawmakers face.
While no formal action on aid – either through existing or new legislation – is expected until the spring, aides say lawmakers will watch PLO actions closely over the next few months to determine the course of future legislation.
As they consider aid to the PLO, some members of Congress will look to the Israeli government for guidance.
“If the Israelis say the PLO is doing a good enough job, who are we to argue otherwise?” one aide asked.
The Israeli government has continued to support aid to the Palestinians for the sake of the peace process. But others take a harder line.
“This is American taxpayer money going to an organization that has not proven it has shed its terrorist past. The time has come to demand compliance,” another aide said.
According to Capitol Hill insiders, the new law will most likely raise the stakes and mandate PLO compliance with its peace accords in order to receive aid.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which had supported aid to the Palestinians in the aftermath of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, has begun to question whether the current law holds the PLO to its commitments. “We will seek through the congressional process to increase PLO compliance with its commitments,” an AIPAC official said cautioning that it is too early in the process to forecast specific ways.
The Zionist Organization of America, which, under its president, Moiton Klein, has pushed for stronger PLO compliance, has already begun lobbying lawmakers in anticipation of the forthcoming debate this spring.
“Clearly we need legislation with greater teeth that would cut off all U.S. aid to the PLO if they continue to violate every aspect of the accords,” said Klein.
“ln light of the fact that the PLO has had one and a half years to comply, they deserve no more than two or three months before all U.S. aid is cutoff,” Klein said.
One of the primary avenues that future legislation could use to ensure compliance is a direct link between aid and all incidents of violations, according to congressional staffers.
Originally floated by Klein, the linkage idea is receiving great attention on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers support the idea. Others, however, say the link will result in micro- management and have suggested instead the imposition of a strict deadline for the PLO to amend the covenant and prevent terrorism.
Another change under consideration would mandate a congressional say in doling out aid after the required State Department reports are released.
“What we need is sound legislation that gets the PLO to comply but doesn’t kill the peace process,” one pro-Israel activist said.
Lawmakers Plan to hold hearings on PLO compliance in late March or early April.