WASHINGTON (Jul. 1)
A Justice Department investigation into Israeli charges that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat knew in advance of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing has cleared the path for confirmation of a U.S. deputy attorney general.
But the road to continued U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority remains littered with congressional obstacles.
The legislation that allows U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority expires later this month.
Responding to Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R-Pa.) threat to hold up a U.S. deputy attorney general’s nomination, FBI investigators traveled to Israel last week to interview Israeli Deputy Education Minister Moshe Peled.
In March, Peled went public with claims that Israel has evidence linking Arafat to a Sudanese meeting where the bomb plot was discussed.
Specter put a hold on Clinton’s pick for deputy attorney general until the Justice Department investigated Peled’s claims.
With the investigation underway, Specter said he would allow the nomination of Eric Holder to proceed.
For its part, the Justice Department remains “skeptical” of the charges, but will continue to “look into the allegations,” an official with the department said.
Peled claims that Israeli intelligence has information that Arafat attended a meeting in Khartoum four days before the Feb. 23, 1993, bombing that killed six people and injured scores of others.
Israeli intelligence reported that the bombing was likely discussed at the meeting.
Specter and other leading members of Congress have said they will fight to stop U.S. aid to the Palestinians if Peled’s charges are true.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, some members of Congress are intent on stopping U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Congress has approved about $100 million a year for the Palestinians since the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed in 1993.
Congressional concerns over Palestinian compliance with its accords with Israel have led to repeated efforts to halt aid.
The latest threat came from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), who have used their power as the chairmen of their respective foreign relations committees to stop the State Department from delivering any new aid to the Palestinians in the wake of new Palestinian laws banning the sale of land to Jews.
Last week, Reps. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) and Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) joined the fray and sent copies of a videotape of excerpts of some of Arafat’s speeches to all of their House colleagues.
The tapes were made and distributed from funds raised by Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Yigal Carmon, an Israeli counterterrorism expert and Likud activist, according to Klein.
The lawmakers, both opposed to continued U.S. aid to the Palestinians, asked their colleagues to decide for themselves if Arafat is complying with the accords.
According to congressional sources, the tapes show Arafat calling for a jihad to free Jerusalem and supporting a dead Hamas leader known as “the engineer” for his ability to build suicide bombs.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, said recently that the embassy supports continued assistance to the Palestinians.
And the Clinton administration has indicated it would push for Palestinian aid.
But the question remains what additional restrictions will be placed on Arafat’s government.
With the coming August recess, many observers expect Congress to grant a temporary extension to the legislation granting aid known as MEPFA, the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act.
Some members of Congress, however, would like to see the legislation lapse for a short period to send a message to the Palestinians.
Opponents of the aid will have a new poll to support their cause.
The poll, released by the Middle East Quarterly, shows the American public overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
In a poll of 1,000 telephone respondents, 85.5 percent said they believe that the United States should not “continue to give $100 million a year in American taxpayer’s money to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.”
The poll was conducted last week by McLaughlin & Associates and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
The accuracy of the poll has been called into question by some polling experts because respondents were asked a negative question about the Palestinian Authority immediately before the question on U.S. aid. They also questioned the phrasing of the question on aid.
“Several Palestinian Arabs who live in the territories controlled by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are suspected in the murders of American citizens. The Palestinian Authority has still not prosecuted the suspects for those murders,” the question states.
When asked if it is important for the American government to demand the transfer of those suspects, 67.4 percent said yes, compared with 15.5 percent who said no.
“The questions were obviously phrased to elicit the most negative response possible,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum.
Calling the phrase “American taxpayer’s money” both “redundant and gratuitous,” Smerling said, “The only purpose of that phrase is to evoke a negative response.”
But Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, defended the poll’s accuracy.
Using “taxpayer” in the poll “was suggested by the pollsters because often people think of money from Washington as coming from someplace else.”
The goal, Pipes said, was to not so subtly “remind people that this is their money.”