State Dept.’s Burns May Be Grilled at His Initial Hearing on Capitol Hill

Growing restless over what they consider the Bush administration’s lack of initiative in the Middle East, lawmakers are expected to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill this week.

William Burns, the State Department’s envoy to the Middle East, will testify Thursday before the House International Relations Committee’s Middle East panel, which is stacked with strong backers of Israel.

Burns likely will be grilled on the American role in the Mideast and what steps are being taken to end 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“I think they are going to want to hear that the administration is holding Arafat’s feet to the fire,” said a Democratic congressional staffer, referring to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Another congressional staffer said members of the subcommittee from both parties have been eager to sound off on the violence since President Bush took office in January, but have not had much of an opportunity.

“There is a lot of saved-up energy here,” the staffer said. “There are a lot of people ready to get their licks in. It’s going to be a tough couple of hours for Mr. Burns.”

Specifically, lawmakers want to make sure the United States holds Arafat responsible for violating the cease fire agreement he approved last month. They also are expected to urge that the Middle East be handled at a more senior level, perhaps demanding that the administration appoint a special Middle East coordinator — a position similar to the one filled by Dennis Ross in the Clinton administration.

There most likely will be questions about the proposal to use the CIA as cease-fire monitors, a plan advocated by the Palestinians and which Israel reluctantly agreed to this week.

Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, will make his first appearance before the Middle East subcommittee since taking office in May. Most inaugural visits by a senior diplomat cover a wide range of topics, but Burns’ mandate for the hearing is spelled out by its title: “U.S. Policy Towards the Palestinians.”

That small scope is probably unprecedented, congressional staffers said, considering that there are other hot spots under Burns’ watch, including Iran and Iraq.

“It reflects that there is a real desire to discuss this issue and not let it drag on,” the Democratic staffer said, calling it “a highly emotional issue.”

A State Department official conceded that Burns will face tough questioning.

“Our effort will be to defend what the administration has done to date,” the official said. “We recognize that there will be some strong criticisms and tough questions.”

Burns will be pressed on efforts to add two Palestinian groups — the Tanzim militia, and Force 17, Arafat’s presidential guard — to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, a change that many on Capitol Hill support.

Burns is expected to tell Congress that he is looking into the issue, but probably will not give details, a State Department official said.

The America Israel Public Affairs Committee has been circulating information on Tanzim and Force 17 in recent weeks, seeking to have the groups added to the terrorist list. In information distributed to committee members, AIPAC outlines attacks the two groups have claimed since violence erupted last fall, and says the forces have “played key roles in encouraging and perpetrating” attacks on Israelis.

While the White House has tried to balance its criticisms of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Congress has not. Numerous bills have been proposed and letters sent to the administration urging swift action against the Palestinians for igniting the violence last September.

In addition to putting Palestinian groups on the terror list, proposed sanctions include downgrading the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington office and barring Palestinian leaders from entering the United States.

One administration gesture has received wide support — President Bush’s refusal to invite Arafat to the White House.

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