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Congress’ initiatives on Palestinians spur Jewish support — and criticism

WASHINGTON, June 15 (JTA) — Critics of the peace process have launched a campaign on Capitol Hill to reveal embarrassing details about the Palestinian Authority chairman’s lack of compliance with his peace accords. The proposals, highlighting those unfulfilled Palestinian promises made in peace deals with Israel, are drawing fire from supporters of the peace process who say the effort is aimed at hampering Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak’s efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. The push for quick action on the measures has also put the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in an awkward position as the pro-Israel lobby tries to show its support for Barak while sticking to its policy favoring measures that hold Arafat to his commitments. Three separate initiatives, some of which could come to a vote later this week, are making their way through Congress: * One requires the Clinton administration to link aid to organizations operating in Palestinian self-rule areas to, among other things, the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to open its books to an international audit and verification of the confiscation of unlicensed weapons; The legislation is set to be introduced next week by a senior Republican senator, according to a Capitol Hill source who refused to reveal the name of the lawmaker. * A second bill requires the State Department to issue a report every six months detailing “terrorist attacks and the activities of the Palestinian Authority, focusing on the status of investigations into terrorists involved in attacks that killed American citizens.” * A third measure is a nonbinding resolution that calls for U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority to be conditioned on “full cooperation in combating terrorist violence” and on investigating and prosecuting terrorist suspects involved in the murder of U.S. citizens. Because of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, the United States began sending all aid three years ago to the self-rule areas through non-governmental organizations that directly fund specific projects. The change took away a lever used by peace process opponents who sought to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinians based on their lack of strict compliance with the peace accords. At least 12 American citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, the resolution says. For now, attention is focused on the measure involving the extradition of terrorists. FBI agents have traveled to Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas three times in the last few months to interview suspects and gather evidence. “Our country’s fight against international terrorism will take an important step forward with the passage of this legislation,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who was instrumental in getting the bill introduced, according to Capitol Hill aides. “This is the first crucial step in the process of bringing the Palestinian killers of Americans to justice,” he said. Sponsors of the measure requiring the State Department to report on the extradition of terrorists, Sens. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), hope to attach the proposal to the State Department reauthorization bill, which could come to a vote as early as Friday. The bill, which has not passed in recent years because of unrelated fights over the payment of United Nations dues and anti-abortion language, again faces a long road in Congress. Meanwhile, the lobbying push on the Ashcroft measure appears to have caught AIPAC off guard. Officially, AIPAC, which said it had not seen a copy of the draft measure by late Tuesday, has not taken a position on Ashcroft’s legislation, said AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker. Last week Ashcroft, in a news release, went public with the proposal, calling Arafat’s “record on terrorism deplorable.” But when asked about the issue in general, Bricker said, “We have always believed and continue to believe that murderers of United States citizens must be brought to justice.” Capitol Hill sources said AIPAC has told members of Congress and their aides who asked for the organization’s position that it is not opposed to the legislation. The group, however, is not actively lobbying for the measure’s passage. For their part, groups promoting movement in the peace process called on all Jewish groups, including AIPAC, to weigh in more forcefully against the measure. They charged that the push is similar to efforts that took place during Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin’s government, where opponents of ceding land to the Palestinians went to Capitol Hill to drum up opposition to the peace process. “This is the latest ploy in the six-year campaign to discredit the peace process by discrediting Israel’s negotiating partner, the Palestinians,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. He called on the pro-Israel community to “actively discourage initiatives that create unnecessary obstacles” for the peace process. “If the purpose is to throw a monkey wrench into the peace talks, one could hardly choose a better moment,” he said But those pushing for a quick vote said the initiatives are necessary to test Arafat’s commitment to the peace process and are an important step in bringing the suspects to justice. In addition, an aide to one of the Senate’s sponsors rejected charges that the measure’s timing is motivated by Barak’s election or the peace process. “This has to do with Senate timing,” this aide said, referring to the legislative calendar.