WASHINGTON, May 15 (JTA) – Two pieces of legislation under consideration in Congress could change the way the United States interacts with Israel’s neighbors.
The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), would require the State Department to assess whether the Palestinian Authority is complying with its obligations under peace agreements with Israel – and, if not, to impose sanctions.
Also under consideration is a bill to limit nonhumanitarian aid to Lebanon if it does not secure its border with Israel.
Ackerman’s bill, the Middle East Peace Commitments Act, would add teeth to current State Department reports that chronicle Palestinian actions but do not make judgments about their compliance with peace agreements, and do not impose consequences.
His bill “goes a mile further,” Ackerman told JTA. “This helps us all to see clearly what the facts are and whether or not there have been violations.”
Currently, the State Department issues several reports that touch on Palestinian actions. The most direct is the Palestine Liberation Organization Commitments Compliance Act, which twice a year chronicles Palestinian actions against Israel.
The latest PLOCCA report, released last month, aroused controversy by reporting that Palestinian Authority “security forces instigated and participated in anti-Israeli violence” – without directly linking the violence to P.A. President Yasser Arafat.
Other State Department reports that assess Palestinian violence are the Patterns of Global Terrorism Report, released earlier this month, and the Foreign Terrorists Organization list, due in October.
The Foreign Terrorists Organization list is one vehicle that could be used to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority and PLO, if it deems them terrorist groups. Ackerman’s bill calls for similar sanctions, such as downgrading the status of the PLO’s Washington office and cutting off non-humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Ackerman said legislation is needed to impose sanctions because he does not believe the State Department will impose sanctions on its own.
“I would suspect, rather strongly, that the” Foreign Terrorists Organization list “is not going to declare the PLO a terrorist organization,” Ackerman said.
His bill, opposed by the White House and the State Department, also provides a waiver for the president to avoid issuing sanctions, in the interest of national security. Presidents Clinton and Bush used a similar waiver to avoid moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The administration opposes the bill because it believes the legislation might harm the U.S. role as a mediator in Middle East peace negotiations.
The heart of the issue, Ackerman said, is not the punishments imposed but the need for the president to take a strong stand on Palestinian actions.
“We want him to be able to call a spade a spade,” Ackerman said.
Speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Powell reiterated the need to send funds to Palestinian-controlled areas.
“I think we have to be a responsible partner for the parties in the region at this time of high stress, this time of high violence, in order to get them back to a situation where we can pursue a negotiating track,” Powell said.
The Lebanon bill, up for consideration Wednesday as an amendment to the State Department Authorizations Bill, would give the Lebanese government six months to deploy forces to the border and assert its authority in the area – or risk losing some $35 million in nonhumanitarian aid from the United States.
Lebanon long demanded, in accord with U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, that Israel withdraw troops from the security zone it occupied in southern Lebanon in 1982. Since the Israeli withdrawal last May, however, Lebanon has refused to secure the border region – as it is obligated to do under Resolution 425 – allowing the Hezbollah militia to remain the dominant force in the area.
“Hezbollah operates from Lebanese territory along the border with Israel with impunity, staging terrorist strikes and cross-border kidnapping of Israelis with increased frequency,” Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the bill’s sponsor, said in a press release. “Lebanon has the power to stop these terrorist strikes from its territory, and a solemn obligation under international law to do so.”
The international community by and large excuses Lebanon from its obligations under Resolution 425 because the country is still dominated by Syria, which backs Hezbollah. Lantos said his bill is in Lebanon’s interest because it requires the country to exert its sovereignty throughout its entire territory.
“This amendment is meant to promote U.S.-Lebanon relations, not punish Lebanon,” Lantos said. “It provides a further incentive for Lebanon to defuse one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the Middle East.”
The Bush administration opposes the Lebanon bill because it believes aid to Lebanon is necessary to jump- start the country’s economy and wrestle Israel’s northern neighbor out of Syrian and Hezbollah’s control.