WASHINGTON (Dec. 3)
For the first time, the White House has officially determined that the Palestinians are not in compliance with the agreements it has signed with the United States and Israel.
But despite the determination, President Bush immediately waived any sanctions required by law, invoking national security as the reason.
The president’s findings coincide with the release of the State Department’s semiannual report on Palestinian compliance.
The report, obtained by JTA on Tuesday, says the Palestinians have not complied with several elements of its agreements, including recognizing the right of Israel to exist in peace and security, solving all disputes through negotiation and peaceful means and renouncing the use of violence.
Because of the sanction waiver, Monday’s actions have no concrete effect.
Some American Jewish organizational officials and lawmakers are nonetheless praising the symbolic gesture of chastising the Palestinians for their noncompliance, but are criticizing the president’s waiver of the sanctions.
“This finding is an important recognition by the U.S. government of Palestinian Authority involvement in and support for terrorism,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“The frank assessment of this report reflects the administration’s broad commitment to speak the truth about terrorists and their supporters.”
At the same time, Foxman said, “given the severity of the evidence affirming the P.A.’s non-compliance, we are disappointed that the White House chose to waive the sanctions.”
The 12-page State Department report found that “the PLO has not complied with its commitments to assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel to assure their compliance with the renunciation of the use of terrorism, prevent violations, and discipline violators.”
It also found that P.A. officials have supported violence “as a proper path towards an acceptable end to the conflict, even as they called for renewed negotiations.”
However, it says there is no conclusive evidence linking political officials to terrorist acts or any direct links to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
“There is strong evidence that some members of the P.A. security forces were allowed to continue serving even though their participation in terrorist incidents was well known,” the report said.
“The P.A. and PLO senior leadership made only sporadic and ineffective efforts to issue clear instructions to refrain from violence or to assume responsibility over violent elements.”
The smuggling of weapons to the West Bank and Gaza has continued, the report found, mostly over the Gaza-Egypt border.
It also criticized Israeli retaliatory attacks on Palestinian security sites, saying it had a “profoundly negative effect” on the Palestinians’ ability to carry out their security responsibilities.
With this report, the Bush administration is delving into uncharted waters, but it is not doing so on its own free will.
Instead, a new law passed earlier this year requires the president to make a more stark determination about the Palestinians’ compliance with the Oslo accords, as well as subsequent agreements.
The Middle East Peace Commitments Act, sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and included in the State Department Authorization Act that was signed this year, changed the process for assessing Palestinian compliance.
The previous legislation, the Palestinian Liberation Organization Commitments Compliance Act, only required that the State Department evaluate Palestinian compliance twice a year, without requiring a strict yes or no conclusion from the president on whether the P.A. was upholding its commitments.
That led to vague reports that often cited Israeli officials and did not independently determine what actions the Palestinians had or had not taken.
The last Compliance Act report, issued in July, found there was no conclusive evidence that senior leaders of the Palestinian Authority or PLO were directly involved in acts of violence, but “some leaders of Palestinian security forces were involved in planning and/or supporting violent attacks on Israelis.”
While the wording is similar to this week’s report, it did not conclusively find the Palestinians non-compliant.
The new language makes it harder for the Bush administration to avoid doing that.
To avoid issuing sanctions against the Palestinians, Bush would have had to find the Palestinians to be in compliance with all signed agreements, which would be hard to justify and would have had a high political cost.
To get around that, the president, in issuing his assessment on Monday in a memorandum to Secretary of State Colin Powell, imposed the sanction of downgrading the PLO office in Washington, but immediately waived that sanction.
However, even with the waiver, the finding that the PLO was not in compliance comes at a political cost.
Bush is seeking Arab support for possible military action against Iraq, and sanctioning the Palestinians could hinder that.
The Bush administration had opposed the new provisions when it was debated in Congress this year, arguing that it essentially tied its hands in peacemaking.
The White House is engaged with the United Nations, European Union and Russia in formulating a road map towards a Palestinian state in 2005.
The plan, which would also require Israeli withdrawal to the boundaries it held before the intifada began in September 2000, will most likely be unveiled after Israeli elections next month.
Some Jewish leaders said Bush’s waiver signaled an appeasement of terrorism.
It goes against the “principle of fighting a war against terrorism by making it clear there will be consequences for the promotion of terror,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Klein said he believes Bush’s actions contradict his June 24 speech, in which he called for new Palestinian leadership that was not associated with violence, and for movement toward a Palestinian state within three years.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) agreed. “While I am glad that sanctions were imposed against the PLO office in Washington, D.C., I am concerned that the president has sent a mixed message by waiving the sanction.
“On the one hand, the U.S. has broken off relations with Arafat and sees him as a marginal actor hopefully exiting the scene; on the other hand, the president believes it is in the national security interest of our country to keep his office open. The logic escapes me.”
But the report defends the waiver.
“Downgrading or closing the PLO office would make it more difficult for us to continue to stay in contact and support Palestinian reformers who share” goals with the United States, the report said.
Despite the waiver, some Jewish officials are calling Monday’s actions a strong step forward.
“The president’s determination that the P.A. is not in compliance with its commitments provides impetus to the need for new Palestinian leadership and true institutional reform,” said Amy Friedkin, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
“Without Palestinian leaders dedicated to the eradication of Palestinian terrorism, the president’s vision cannot be achieved.”