Congress Poised to Pass Legislation That Requires Palestinian Compliance

After years of arguing for sanctions against the Palestinians, Congress is poised to approve a measure that calls on the president to punish Palestinian leaders if they are not complying with signed agreements.

The House of Representatives was expected to vote this week on the conference report of the State Department Authorization Act.

More than a year ago, pro-Israel lawmakers included the measure, the Middle East Peace Commitments Act into the bill, and it has survived the conference committee.

The language calls on the president to assess twice a year whether the Palestinian leadership has adhered to agreements it signed with the United States and Israel, and if not, to administer one or more of several defined sanctions.

The sanctions range from downgrading the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization to cutting non-humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip or placing the PLO or Palestinian Authority on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list.

“With this legislation we are finally closing the gap between all our tough talk about terrorism and the reality of our heedless engagement with the Palestinians no matter how deeply enmeshed in terror they are.”

The bill, once prominently touted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was essentially abandoned by Jewish leaders after President Bush’s June 24 speech, in which he called for a new Palestinian leadership and sought reforms that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But the MEPCA language had been sitting in the authorization bill for more than a year, placed without fanfare in order to avoid a confrontation.

“In Washington, as in the Middle East, the dead are revivable,” Ackerman joked.

Authorization bills, which direct Congress’ policy priorities for government agencies, are often tied up in political disputes and bypassed straight to the appropriations process, which allocates the funds to the agencies.

Since that time, AIPAC and other Jewish groups have rallied behind a stronger bill, dubbed the Arafat Accountability Act, which sought similar sanctions, but did not ask the president to assess the Palestinian actions. Lawmakers argued that Palestinian actions had made the assessment process unnecessary.

And after the June speech, the Arafat bill was reworked again. Now, being debated as part of the foreign operations appropriations process is language that would prevent any funds to go to the Palestinian state until it meets certain conditions, including new leadership, a constitution and measures to prevent terrorism.

Ackerman said he believes that with the tougher bills floating through the halls of Congress, MEPCA is now being viewed as a compromise.

“I’m sure there are people that feel this is less harsh than the Arafat Accountability Act, which we are going to push anyway,” said Ackerman, one of the sponsors of that bill as well.

The MEPCA bill is no longer on AIPAC’s Web site as a legislative priority. But the organization hailed the bill’s impending passage.

“By including this language in the conference report, the Congress is sending a clear message,” said Rebecca Needler, AIPAC’s spokeswoman.

“If Palestinian leaders do not demonstrate a commitment to fighting terror, they will be held accountable.”

Last year, lawmakers tried to slip the MEPCA language into the appropriations bills.

And appropriations bills only have a one-year life span. By placing this language in an authorization bill, it will be law until it is overridden by another piece of legislation.

Although the MEPCA bill is likely to become law — the Office of Management and Budget has said the president will sign the authorization act — the Bush administration is not expected to act on it.

Instead, it will fold the mandated report into the Palestine Liberation Organization Commitment Compliance Act report it already writes twice a year.

As for the sanctions, the president is likely to waive them out of the interest of national security, a State Department official said.

“We’d certainly optimize the national security waiver on an issue such as this,” the official said. The State Department has opposed almost all of the legislation Congress has conceived over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claiming it ties the hands of the Bush administration.

“There is an active reform effort under way, and we want to have the ability to support that effort without being compromised by legislation such as this.”

But Ackerman said he believes the measures have merit even if they are not implemented. “We want to place certain markers down and this is one of them,” he said.

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