Expiration of MEPFA would be symbolic, but aid would still flow

WASHINGTON, July 29 (JTA) — The expiration of a U.S. law that allows aid to the Palestinians would deliver a symbolic diplomatic rebuke — but have no immediate impact on U.S. assistance. The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, commonly known as MEPFA, will expire Aug. 12 unless Congress acts before its summer recess, which is scheduled to start this weekend. A move by Congress to let MEPFA expire would be the latest signal of dismay over recent Palestinian actions and policies. Members of Congress who oppose aid to the Palestinians have been turning up the pressure on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to comply with his accords with Israel. One such measure, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and passed by the Senate last week, would cut off all direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Regardless of these actions, the vast majority of the aid will continue – - due to a restructuring of the way the United States delivers its pledge of $100 million a year to the Palestinians. MEPFA was enacted after Israel and the Palestinians signed their historic accords in 1993. The legislation waives four U.S. laws that had barred U.S. contact with and support for the Palestine Liberation Organization. If the law expires, these waivers would lapse and laws aimed at curbing PLO terrorism — some decades old — would take effect. If this occurs, Palestinian officials could have trouble obtaining visas to visit the United States. Since the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund give money to the Palestinians, the United States would also have to deduct from its contributions to these organizations. But the ban on PLO offices in the United States would probably not be enforced. The law’s requirement that the PLO close its Washington office was not enforced last year when the measure lapsed for a couple of weeks. But the most critical component from the Palestinian viewpoint — U.S. aid — would remain intact. After Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.) used his power last year as chairman of the House International Relations Committee to stop $10 million bound for the Palestinians, the State Department moved to restructure the aid package. Instead of sending money to the Palestinians through international organizations — which are subject to MEPFA’s restrictions — the vast majority of the aid, some $75 million, is channeled through non-governmental organizations by the Agency for International Development. Another $25 million is available as grants to companies seeking to do business in the self-rule areas. With Congress making a last-minute legislative push before members leave for the summer recess, administration officials have been sending conflicting signals to lawmakers over whether MEPFA should be renewed. Under the MEPFA law, the State Department must certify every six months that the Palestinians are in compliance with their agreements with Israel. In the past, the State Department has said that Arafat’s government is making a good faith effort. This time around, however, the Clinton administration has told key members of Congress that the State Department cannot certify that the Palestinians are in compliance. Several congressional sources said administration officials told lawmakers that the recent arrest of four Palestinian Authority police officers suspected of involvement in a terrorist attack against Israelis amounted to “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for Palestinian certification. The arrest of the Palestinian officers, coupled with the breakdown in security cooperation, violence in Hebron and recent murders of Arabs selling land to Israelis, have combined to make certification “impossible,” said one congressional aide. Reports Tuesday that a Palestinian panel had recommended that senior self-rule officials be tried for alleged corruption was likely to make certification even more difficult. The compliance report is already a week overdue, and
key members of Congress, including Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), said that they would not extend MEPFA unless the State Department certifies compliance. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, have said they support the renewal of the law, Israeli officials have not been lobbying Congress on the issue, according to congressional sources.

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