U.S. Congress Presses Ahead to Hold Palestinians Accountable

Congressional leaders are continuing to push for sanctions against Palestinian officials, despite strong objections by the Bush administration.

Fueled by concerns that President Bush’s Middle East policy laid out last month will not produce results, lawmakers are pressing ahead with two pieces of legislation that would sanction the Palestinian Authority and its leadership for violating provisions of the Oslo accords.

And while these bills have been essentially abandoned by the Jewish lobby, pro-Israel members of Congress are revising the legislation to reflect — and add teeth to — the president’s new doctrine.

And while the legislation is unlikely to actually pass, it is seen as an opportunity for lawmakers, in an election year, to play a role in Middle East diplomacy and hold the Bush administration’s feet to the fire.

In a House International Relations Committee subcommittee hearing last week, lawmakers expressed concern that the Bush administration did not have a plan to back up the president’s June 24 policy speech on the Middle East.

They are also worried that the Bush administration will not hold the Palestinian leadership accountable to the strict standards the president laid out.

In his speech, Bush said the creation of a Palestinian state could come only after the ouster of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and substantial political and economic reforms to the Palestinian infrastructure.

By and large, U.S. lawmakers praised the speech.

But in their questioning of David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, lawmakers last week expressed concern that Bush’s speech would not be followed up with concrete action by the State Department.

The State Department is seen as instrumental in pursuing the vision laid out by Bush — and is also considered the most opposed to the specifics.

“Unless I’m mistaken, I’d say the president agrees with us. There have to be consequences for those who use violence and terror to advance their political goals.”

To emphasize that point, lawmakers are beefing up two bills introduced last year on Palestinian compliance.

The Middle East Peace Commitments Act, which Ackerman introduced, would require the president to analyze Palestinian commitments to peace treaties, and impose sanctions if the Palestinian Authority was found not in compliance.

The stronger bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, would, if passed, immediately impose sanctions on the grounds that the Palestinians have violated their commitments to, among other things, renounce terrorism, end violence and halt incitement.

The bill would deny visas to Palestinian Authority officials, as well as restrict the travel of Palestinian officials at the United Nations.

The bill would also 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 Palestinian compliance every 90 days, and determine whether the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian Authority or other group is a terrorist organization.

The new state would also require legal and constitutional reforms.

Blunt said he believed the new bills would “provide a foundation and a monitoring system” that would help all parties move towards peace.

Originally, both bills were being used as a way to force the White House’s hand in playing a larger role in the Middle East, and to assuage them away from the counsel of Arab leaders.

But since Bush’s speech, lawmakers have not done away with the bills, as the Bush administration has urged.

“There’s still a great deal of interest that the administration doesn’t walk away from the principles set out by the president, which is the inclination of the State Department,” said a Democratic congressional staffer.

Satterfield said the administration objected to the legislation because it not only targets Arafat — whom the White House also wants to see replaced — but because it also targets other current Palestinian leaders, as well as those that might emerge in the future.

He said such legislation could impede the reforms the Bush administration is seeking.

“The president has stated what direction he wants to go in,” a State Department official said. “Congress has got to leave the president the flexibility to try and pursue this now.”

But Blunt said Congress can still play a role.

“On June 24, the president told the world that peace and stability were impossible without a new Palestinian leadership that would work to fight against terror rather than engaging in it,” Blunt testified at the hearing.

“Congress should help the president by codifying into law the very ideas he outlined in his historic June 24 speech.”

What remains unclear is whether the bill will go anywhere in Congress.

Most of the legislation proposed on the Middle East never gets to a vote, with the main tactic being the assembling of co-sponsors as a sign of the depth of support.

And support for the bill from the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, seems to be waning.

Privately, AIPAC officials have told Jewish leaders that the organization has ceased working on the bill, and has moved on to other projects.

Publicly, AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said the bill remains a priority and should be codified to reflect the conditionality of a Palestinian state that the president expressed.

Lawmakers who support the president’s vision met Monday with members of the Yesha Council, leadership of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who oppose the president’s call for a Palestinian state.

“We think from the point of view of stabilization of the area, this will be disastrous,” said Eli Cohen, a Knesset members and chairman of the Judea, Samaria and Gaza Lobby. “It’s creating a state of terror.”

Cohen said Jews living beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders are being used as pawns amid discussions of Israel handing over settlement areas to the Palestinians, and it is important for U.S. officials to associate the settlements with real people.

The Yesha leaders said they believe Bush’s speech moved things in the right direction, but they decry the notion that the Palestinians can democratize within three years.

“If you give them counterfeit expectations, it’s not good for them too,” Cohen said.

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