WASHINGTON (May. 15)
U.S. lawmakers are considering a bill that would impose tough sanctions on the Palestinian leadership — and give President Bush less latitude to maneuver around them.
The Arafat Accountability Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last week in an attempt to increase the pressure on the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat, to crack down on terrorism.
The bill would restrict Palestinian leaders’ movement in the United States, and limit the reasons the U.S. president could use to avoid imposing sanctions.
The bill is being heavily pushed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It comes as a State Department report released this week concludes that the Palestinian Authority is not taking action against terrorist groups.
"By imposing sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, the United States will show that we have had enough excuses for terrorism," Ackerman said.
Like a bill introduced last month in the Senate, the House legislation would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials and restrict the travel of Palestinian officials at the United Nations.
The bill also would freeze the American assets of Palestinian leaders and downgrade the Washington office of the PLO.
In addition, the White House would be required to assess every 90 days whether the Palestinian Authority was complying with its commitments under various treaties with Israel.
The White House also would have to determine whether the PLO, Palestinian Authority or other Palestinian groups are terrorist organizations.
"It creates a report card for the PLO at a time that they need a report card," Blunt said.
Unlike other bills on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have made their way through Congress, the Arafat Accountability Act does not allow the U.S. president to waive all the sanctions in the interest of national security.
The waiver could be used only regarding the designation of groups as terrorist organizations and the prohibition of visas.
Other sanctions in the bill would have to be applied if the Palestinians did not meet their commitments.
Presidents often have used national security waivers to avoid making dramatic moves in the Middle East.
Waivers invoked regularly prevent the U.S. Embassy in Israel from being moved to Jerusalem and the PLO office in Washington from being closed.
This bill also contains a provision that would allow the president to deem "that the conditions that warrant these sanctions no longer exist." That’s a different standard than current rules, which allow the president to waive sanctions even if he determines that the Palestinians are not complying with their commitments.
Opponents of the bill say it sets a much higher bar for using the waiver. Supporters say the tougher provision still gives the president some latitude.
The bill is expected to face resistance from the Bush administration, which has been hesitant to accept congressional initiatives supporting Israel for fear of harming the U.S. role as an intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"It has always been our practice to oppose legislation that inhibits our ability to work with both sides," a State Department spokesman said.
The bill is tougher than another initiative Ackerman spearheaded in the House, which had been considered the cornerstone of congressional initiatives against the Palestinian Authority.
The Middle East Peace Commitments Act, which Ackerman introduced last year, would require the president to assess Palestinian compliance before initiating sanctions.
The Arafat Accountability Act, however, already assumes that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are noncompliant.
"It’s time to go to the next step," he said. "We are no longer studying to determine whether the Palestinians are compliant."
"There is no deniability about" the Palestinian leadership’s "complicity in terrorism," agreed Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Ackerman said he had been reluctant to support the Arafat Accountability Act because Secretary of State Colin Powell said it tied the hands of the Bush administration, but said he eventually felt that Congress needed to take a tougher stand.
Blunt said he expects quicker action on the House side.
Currently, the State Department assesses Palestinian compliance with its commitments every six months, in accordance with the PLO Commitments Compliance Act.
The latest report, released this week, said "there is no conclusive evidence" that Palestinian leaders had advance knowledge of terror attacks against Israel, but also said that the Palestinian Authority did not take action against terrorist groups.
"The weight of evidence would indicate that they knew of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Tanzim and elements of Force 17 involvement in the violence and did little to rein them in," says the report, which assesses Palestinian actions only through Dec. 15 of last year.
Members of Arafat’s security forces "were deeply involved in the violence," the report found.
The State Department also found that high-level Palestinian officials were involved in planning the smuggling of weapons into the West Bank and Gaza, and that Palestinian media reports had the effect of inciting violence.
Hoenlein praised the report, as far as it goes. Yet new evidence retrieved since the Dec. 15 cutoff, which documents the Palestinian leadership’s involvement in terrorism, will produce a much stronger report in the future, he predicted.