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Aid to Palestinians debated

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (JTA) – U.S. aid to the Palestinians is in jeopardy as Congress continues to send strong signals of support for Israel.

While the Clinton administration, which is working to keep its position as an “honest broker” to help resolve the situation that has engulfed the Middle East, many lawmakers have made clear that they blame Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for the recent violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

U.S. Rep Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House Majority Whip who is not considered a strong supporter of the Jewish state, said last week that the United States should strengthen its commitment to Israel. DeLay also faulted Arafat for the current crisis.

“Yasser Arafat may now present himself as a repentant terrorist, but he is a terrorist nonetheless, and a responsible American foreign policy for the region cannot ignore Mr. Arafat’s despicable record of murderous violence,” he said.

Lawmakers making their views known in acts both symbolic and legislative.

At least 96 members of the U.S. Senate signed on to a letter to President Clinton expressing solidarity with Israel and condemning Arafat for waging a “deliberate campaign of violence” in recent weeks.

The letter also urged the administration to help secure the return of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon earlier this month.

Two senators who have refused to sign are Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), an Arab American who is in a very tight race for re-election, and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).

In other action, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution last week condemning Arafat for the recent violence in the Middle East.

The resolution, introduced by Reps. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY.) and Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), says the Palestinian leader did “too little for far too long” to control the clashes and actually encouraged the violence.

Beyond the rhetoric and the symbolic acts, the most concrete – and more controversial – moves are legislative initiatives that threaten to cut off Palestinian aid.

The looming deadline for the end of Congress’ legislative session and administration opposition to some congressional initiatives could prevent some congressional efforts from going forward. Congress may adjourn for the election season by the end of the week.

The foreign aid bill, which has yet to be passed, includes approximately $100 million for the Palestinians. The aid does not go directly to the Palestinian Authority but rather it is distributed through non-governmental organizations and used mostly for humanitarian purposes.

U.S. Jewish groups had worked diligently to initiate the funding in the aftermath of the early Israeli-Palestinian agreements, arguing that economic support would help bolster the peace accords.

Now that aid is in jeopardy.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation last month that would terminate U.S. aid to the Palestinians and downgrade the status of the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington if Arafat unilaterally declares a Palestinian state.

The legislation came before the recent violence, but when the peace negotiations were already clearly in trouble.

The United States and Israel have made clear that such a unilateral declaration – promised by the Palestinians for September and then postponed – would violate the agreements that have been reached.

The Clinton administration strongly opposes the bill.

The legislation American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro- Israel lobby, has strongly pushed for such a move.

“The upgraded relationship between the United States and the Palestinians and U.S. aid are important leverage tools and an important way of keeping the Palestinians in the peace process,” said Kenneth Bricker, a spokesman for AIPAC.

The administration says it prefers to make the same arguments diplomatically rather than through laws.

A congressional vote to end the aid would make it more difficult to convince the Palestinians to make concessions, an administration official said.

If the legislation to end aid passes in the Senate, the administration wants significant changes made, such as ensuring that the president will have the right to waive any sanctions for reasons of national security.

The Senate version of the bill has a good chance of passing this week, according to sources close to the process.

There may also be a sense of immediacy about the legislation. When lawmakers were working on the legislation in September, the peace process, though deadlocked, was still considered viable – and continued peace negotiations were more likely than unilateral moves.

But since relations between Israel and the Palestinians have deteriorated so dramatically, Arafat could be more likely to declare a state.

While AIPAC has lobbied hard for this legislation, it does not support cutting off aid to the Palestinians unless they declare statehood.

But some Jewish organizations say Congress should go even further and consider revoking the aid that is included in this year’s foreign aid bill.

In a rare alliance among groups that often sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the American Jewish Congress and the Zionist Organization of America are both taking this position.

“However much we agree that economic aid is an important component to peace, it is not entirely unconditional,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the AJCongress. “If you are engaged in a war-like attitude, it is something that needs to be taken into account.”

Baum said he was surprised more Israeli supporters are not broaching the subject.

Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, advocates cutting off all aid to the Palestinian Authority immediately because legislation that is tied to Arafat’s unilateral declaration of a state implies that the United States should support Arafat otherwise.

“It’s time to do something real,” Klein said, calling congressional resolutions “toothless.”

He said he believes Congress is “ready to be tough on Arafat.”

A senior official at another Jewish organization disagreed with the approach of both groups.

“Cutting off Arafat’s aid now might have the unintended consequence of giving him the excuse to abandon the peace process altogether,” the official said.

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