Should the Palestine Liberation Organization continue to receive American foreign aid?
Congress will answer that question before the end of this month.
In the meantime, the issue is shaping up to be the latest battleground both for proponents and opponents of the Israeli government’s current peace policies.
The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act — which allows U.S. aid to go to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, permits American diplomats to talk to PLO officials and allows PLO members to travel to the United States — was enacted after Israel and the PLO signed their historic Declaration of Principles in September 1993 in Washington.
The legislation, which waives previously enacted statutes prohibiting contact with the PLO, expires June 30.
There is little doubt that Congress will extend the waivers required to allow the money to flow and the meetings to take place.
The United States pledged $500 million to the PLO after it signed its peace accords with Israel. Arafat has already received about $100 million.
What remains to be decided, however, is what strings Congress will attach to the PLO’s aid and how long the waivers will last.
Jewish activists on all sides of the debate hope to size on the limited time remaining to sway Congress to their positions.
A barrage of activists — from the pro-aid Israel Policy Forum, which has slated a satellite hookup with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, to 100 Orthodox rabbis vehemently opposed to the Israel-PLO peace accords — plan a no-holds-barred campaign on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.
“When your former enemy is in the process of becoming your ally and you feel you are increasingly sharing interests with this former enemy, it becomes important to encourage that movement,” said Jonathan Jacoby, executive vice president of the Israel Policy Forum.
In contrast, opponents argue that Arafat has had his chance and continues to violate his commitments with Israel.
“By violating every aspect of his commitments proves that Arafat is not willing to live at peace with Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
As part of its 1993 Middle East Facilitation Act, Congress decided to tie ongoing aid to the PLO to its compliance with its agreements with Israel.
As a result, the legislation links funding for the PLO to its commitment to recognize Israel’s right to exist, to amend its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, to renounce terrorism, to refrain from violence and to ensure that all PLO factions comply with the agreements.
As time runs out on this bill, the chairmen of the House and Senate committees that deal with foreign affairs, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), have begun to consider changes.
Congressional aides involved in the drafting of the legislation do not expect a public debate on the measure.
“Once the language is worked out and accepted by committee members we will bring it to the floor for a vote,” one aide said on the condition of anonymity.
“We’ll make it look tough but in the end the goal is to get the money to the PLO,” the aide said.
Although no public debate is expected, forces are already working to shape the measure.
On the right of the spectrum are those seeking to kill the legislation altogether.
Others, however are looking only for some technical changes.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is working with members of Congress to “update and enhance” the legislation “so it becomes an even more effective tool” for PLO compliance, said Steve Grossman, president of AIPAC.
AIPAC wants to include language on prosecuting terrorists and to update the bill to reflect the realities on the ground today that were not there when the agreements were first reached, he said.
Nevertheless, AIPAC will be lobbying members of Congress to support the bill.
“This act and its renewal is a key ingredient in the ongoing success of the peace process and therefore it is essential” for it to be renewed, Grossman said.
Central to the debate is whether the PLO has adhered to its commitments under the Declaration of Principles and other agreements with Israel.
According to a State Department report released last week, the PLO has “abided by its commitments,” but “more should be done.”
Those who support continuing the aid are using the State Department report to bolster their position.
Many have adopted the Israeli government’s view that continued aid is essential to the continuation of the peace process. They quote Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ logic that “we do not ask for 100 percent results, only 100 percent effort.”
Opponents, in contrast, seize on Arafat’s failed commitment to amend the PLO covenant, which calls for the destruction of Israel.
This camp also points out that more Israelis have been killed by terrorists since the signing of the Israel-PLO accords on the White House lawn than during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that preceded it. .TX.-Klein, who labeled the State Department report “a whitewash,” has led a vocal fight on Capitol Hill to oppose aid to the PLO.
Klein, who published his own sharply critical accounting of PLO compliance, has asked members of Congress to give Arafat a four- to six-month deadline to amend the covenant, prosecute terrorists, disarm Hamas and other Palestinian militants, extradite terrorists to Israel and stop inciting hatred of Israel through hostile speeches.
“By pretending that the PLO is in compliance, the State Department is sending a message that Arafat doesn’t really have to comply,” Klein said.
Activists supporting the peace process have fought Klein tooth and nail on the issue.
“I don’t think that Congress wants to be singlehandedly responsible for killing the peace process,” said Tom Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a group which backs the peace process.
“Making policy for Gaza from 5,000 miles away is unwise, Smerling said, adding, “Congress would not be in the business of considering micromanaging the DOP if it were not for Jewish opponents of the peace process urging them on.”
Klein has vehemently denied that he is opposed to the peace process.
“We owe it to the Israelis to trust them on this,” Smerling said. “It’s their lives and future at stake. For us to say we know more about the Palestinians then you do is arrogant and ridiculous.”
But opponents of aid say it is their money and they should have a say where it goes.
“As an American taxpayer I demand a right and a voice in where money is distributed,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, who will lead on international coalition of 100 Orthodox rabbis through Capitol Hill visits next week.
“It would be an outrage to send any more American money down the rat hole of Gaza. The PLO is still a terrorist organization that failed to comply in large part with its agreements,” said Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J.
Also on the opposition side, Beth Gilinsky, president of the Jewish Action Alliance, said she is sitting on tens of thousands of letters to members of Congress opposing aid to the PLO.
Gilinsky said she is planning to deliver the letters later this month at a Capitol Hill rally with Christian pro-Israel groups and other opponents of the current peace process.
Although the opposition has been more vocal over the past months — arguing incessantly against continued funding unless the PLO lives up to its accords – - organized American Jewry’s heavy hitters have begun to weigh in to support an extension of the legislation.
In addition to AIPAC, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council has joined the fray.
In a letter sent last month to all members of Congress, the Jewish umbrella group asked lawmakers to “endorse our government’s commitment of economic assistance to the Palestinians” by extending the legislation allowing the PLO to receive American aid.
The Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations has not yet taken a stand on the issue, but Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, said he envisions a consensus in favor of extending the waivers with some modifications.
“The fact is that Arafat has not done all that he should have,” Hoenlein said. “I envision that the conference will find the need to press for compliance and hold Arafat’s feet to the fire but support continued funding.”
Hoenlein was quick to point out that “even the Likud,” Israel’s opposition party, supports continued funding for the Palestinians, but says the money should go directly to fund projects, not the Palestinian Authority.
For active supporters of the peace process, the issue of Palestinian aid has become a rallying cry for their cause.
“The Jewish community has had a problem funding concrete things around which do rally in favor of the peace process,” said Jacoby of the Israel Policy Forum.
“Finally this is something the Jewish community can support,” he said.