Fueling the raging debate over U.S. aid to the Palestinians, a leader of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has chastised a senior Israeli official for arguing that Congress and America Jews should not concern themselves with Palestinian behavior.
Jonathan Mitchell, AIPAC’s regional vice president for southern California, called Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin “absurd and arrogant” for comments he made at a Jerusalem meeting last month with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Mitchell, a resident of Los Angeles, made his attack in a letter that has been circulated to Jewish newspapers across the country.
Officials of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, have distanced themselves from the letter.
Beilin countered this week, accusing Mitchell of “trying to be more Israeli than the Israelis.” The heated exchange comes at a time when the fate of U.S. aid to the Palestinians is unclear.
The Clinton administration has pledged support for the financially strapped Palestinian Authority. As recently as last week, Vice President Al Gore reiterated that promise, telling Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in Jericho that the United States would keep its commitment to provide $500 million in economic aid through 1998.
The United States has already provided close to $100 million to the Palestinian autonomous zones in Gaza and the West Bank Jericho enclave.
At the same time, however, some members of Congress and some members of the Jewish community have argued that the PLO has not complied sufficiently with its 1993 agreement with Israel, thereby disqualifying it from receiving U.S. aid.
These groups are specifically concerned that Arafat and the PLO have not done enough to contain terrorism or amend its covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel.
Legislation was enacted last year to give the president the authority to cut off aid if he determines that the PLO has not complied with the peace accords.
With the legislation up for renewal June 30, some members of the Jewish community have turned up the heat on Capitol Hill in recent months to cut off aid to the PLO. Indeed, there are indications that Congress will consider legislation which at least will beef up the provisions for compliance when they return from the Easter recess toward the end of April.
However, supporters of the current peace process, including the Clinton administration, have expressed fear that backing down from U.S. aid to the Palestinians could threaten the entire process.
It was in this context that a member of the Conference of Presidents, during a recent mission to Israel, asked Beilin to reaffirm statements he made after Israel and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles in Washington in September 1993.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who asked the question, said he was referring to Beilin’s prior remarks that thee would be no peace if the PLO does not stop terrorism and amend its convenant.
Mitchell, when he got wind of this exchange, decided to go public with his information.
Mitchell, who said in an interview that he believed he was breaking AIPAC’c policy prohibiting its lay leaders from publishing views without the lobby’s endorsement, quoted Beilin in his letter as saying, “If Arafat complies exactly with the Oslo Accords or not, it is none of your business.”
“It is not the business of Jewish organizations, not AIPAC’s, not the American Congress and not of any other country in the world except the State of Israel,” Beilin reportedly said.
Incensed at the notion that it was no one’s business but the Israelis, Mitchell also wrote in his letter: “The U.S. provisioned payments to the Palestinians as an incentive for Arafat to control terrorism.
“Instead, acts of Palestinian barbarism have risen to unprecedented levels. Under the circumstances, Beilin’s criticism of our government and those of us dedicated to preserving and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship is both absurd and arrogant.”
“It’s important to publicly defend the American Congress. We love Israel but we cannot let anyone say these terrible things about the American Congress,” he said.
Reacting to the letter, Beilin said through a spokesman, “The kind of people that are trying to be more Israeli than the Israelis themselves are causing damage to the pure national interests of the State of Israel.”
Beilin refused to comment on the role of the Congress or the American Jewish community, saying he did not want to prolong the issue. AIPAC, meanwhile, distanced itself from the letter, saying in a statement: “AIPAC does not publicly critique Israeli government officials.” AIPAC has been in the forefront of tying U.S. aid to PLO compliance with the accords. At the same time, officials of the organization have consistently said they support aid to the Palestinians in principle as an important tool for moving the peace process forward.
But Jewish activists across the political spectrum, including those who support aid to the PLO, said Beilin was out of line with his remarks.
As Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said of the whole PLO compliance debate: “We have an interest in this matter because it is American money.”
“It is surprising that Yossi Beilin of all people would taken that position,” Baum said, adding that the deputy foreign minister “has always argued for a partnership between Israel and American Jews.”