Congress considers cutting aid package to the Palestinians

WASHINGTON, May 27 (JTA) — If the Palestinian Authority is going to continue to receive U.S. foreign aid, the Clinton administration will have to convince an increasingly skeptical Congress that it still deserves it. The legislative stage has been set for two key votes in the coming months to determine if the Palestinians will receive the fourth annual $100 million installment of a promised five-year $500 million aid package. The first measure involves renewing legislation known as the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which allows aid to and diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Congress faces a July deadline on that legislation, which was enacted to ensure that the Palestinians comply with their accords with Israel. The second measure is the actual foreign aid spending bill, which includes the $100 million — $75 million in cash assistance and $25 million in grants to Yasser Arafat’s government. Congress has never enthusiastically embraced aid to the Palestinians, which began after they signed their first peace accords with Israel. Instead, most lawmakers who spoke out on the issue said the aid is a necessary component of Middle East peace. But leading members of Congress responsible for the foreign aid budget have in recent weeks expressed growing opposition to Palestinian aid in light of reports of Palestinian corruption, Arafat’s support for the death penalty for Arabs who sell land to Jews and Arafat’s calls for Arab states to reimpose their boycott of the Jewish state. In fact, the chairmen of Congress’ two international relations committees, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and U.S. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), informed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last week that they would stop all aid to the Palestinians until Arafat and his justice minister “have withdrawn the proposed legislation barring the sale of private Arab land to Jews.” As a result of this Gilman-Helms effort, the State Department last week held up $1.25 million in 1997 aid, which was intended to train the Palestinian Finance Ministry. Gilman already has halted an additional $10 million. Nonetheless, the Clinton administration continues to strongly support aid as an important instrument of peacebuilding. The congressional effort to limit aid to the Palestinians
is being supported — although not driven by — Israel and most American Jewish organizations, according to sources on Capitol Hill. When Israel first signed its peace accords with the Palestinians, it vigorously advocated aid as a way of boosting the fledgling self-rule regime. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took over the reins in Jerusalem last year, his government continued to support aid to the Palestinians. American Jewish groups by and large supported the Israeli position, with the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee taking the lead in supporting aid to the Palestinians. But Israel apparently has begun to shift its position. And
now AIPAC’s position is not so clear. In the past, AIPAC supported aid to the Palestinians even when the Palestinian Authority was not adhering to all its commitments, such as finishing the process of amending the Palestinian covenant. But now AIPAC is seeking a stricter compliance without which could result in a cut in aid, according to congressional aides. AIPAC issued a statement this week emphasizing the importance of MEPFA and warning that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s “slipping compliance,” puts “U.S. aid at risk.” Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has worked for three years to convince Congress to cut aid to the Palestinians. According to Klein, the conditions are now ripe to secure his elusive goal. “People in Congress are just angry,” Klein said, referring to what he termed Arafat’s “pro-terror and anti-peace behavior.”

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