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Rapprochement in Middle East Finding Its Way to Washington

In case anyone has missed the latest rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East, take a look at what’s happening in Washington. The pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Americans for Peace Now are joining forces to defeat an effort to strangle massive aid to the Palestinians.

And the Israeli and Palestinian envoys to Washington are exchanging pleasantries while agreeing on the need for American generosity to the Palestinians — as well as Palestinian transparency and self-discipline.

All those forces were lined up this week to push $200 million in emergency assistance for the Palestinians through the U.S. Congress. The aid was overwhelmingly approved Wednesday by the House of Representatives. The Senate is expected to approve a similar measure.

The $200 million is part of the House appropriations bill for $81 billion in supplemental aid for the war on terrorism, including for Iraq. The bill earmarks $5 million of the $200 million in assistance to the Palestinians for an outside audit before any aid is disbursed.

Included in the package was an amendment approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee. The amendment, introduced by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), removes a national security waiver, which presidents have used in the past to rush aid to the Palestinians. That could slow down the aid, as now each dollar of the $200 million must come under congressional scrutiny.

But lawmakers defeated an effort to put a brake on the aid altogether.

Last week, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) introduced a measure that would prohibit all assistance to the Palestinians pending presidential certification that the Palestinian leadership “is not tainted by violence,” a tall order given the intifada over the past several years.

The measure, which Weiner then offered as an amendment to the legislation on Tuesday, was defeated by the House.

Make no mistake: There are still some substantive differences among the newfound pals — chiefly over the arduousness of the reporting procedures attached to the aid — but there’s a definite shift in perspectives.

“It symbolizes the changes of the time, and I hope the time is changing,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said Monday of his Capitol Hill appearance with Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative.

The joint appearance at a Peace Now event marked the first time the two had shared a platform.

In its effort to garner support for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank planned for this summer, the Israeli Embassy has sought the assistance of dovish organizations that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government once tried hard to marginalize.

“Israeli representatives have always and will continue to reach out to Jewish organizations across the spectrum,” said an Israeli official. “This is particularly true in a period in which Israel is facing difficult decisions.”

Americans for Peace Now has, at the embassy’s invitation, attended briefings for American Jewish leaders on the merits of the disengagement in recent weeks. The groups says that it has not usually been invited to such briefings.

The new dynamics emerged into the open on Monday when Ayalon joined the Capitol Hill forum sponsored by Peace Now and featuring the Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian ambassadors.

“As to the aid package to the Palestinians, we were very much for it,” Ayalon said, on the eve of the full House of Representatives debate on the assistance. “I think it is very important to try and help economic opportunities over with the Palestinians.”

Key to the decision to line up with Americans for Peace Now, Israeli officials said, was the fact that the group defines itself as Zionist– something its president, Deborah DeLee, emphasized in introducing the speakers. The decision was influenced as well by the group’s friendly ties with diplomats from Arab countries that Israel wants on board in facilitating the transition to Palestinian self-rule.

For his part, Rahman fully endorsed a provision in the package that subjects the Palestinian Authority to an outside audit before any aid gets under way.

He said P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas would welcome an audit “by the World Bank, by any institution that will assist us.”

Opposition to Weiner’s proposal united unlikely bedfellows: officials for Americans for Peace Now and AIPAC, whose relationship is usually defined by grim stares exchanged across crowded committee rooms.

Ayalon, carefully saying he usually prefers to stay out of American political fights, nonetheless noted that holding up the money would keep Israel from using some of it to build new high-tech crossing points that would help accelerate secure travel for Palestinians crossing from the West Bank and Gaza Strip into Israel.

He said Israel was “encouraged by the fact that this part of the package, the assistance package, is being used also as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” allocating some of it for special terminals with high-tech and technological equipment.

The rest of the money goes to job creation, home and school construction, institution building and road works.

There was broad-based community support for the aid — but apparent divisions over how it should be accounted for.

“There is an historic opportunity for progress between Israel and the Palestinians at the moment,” AIPAC said in a statement sent to congressmen that was seen as critical in driving the aid through.

“AIPAC is supportive of aid to the Palestinians with the right oversight to ensure that such aid is used properly to help the Palestinian people and advance America’s interests.”

AIPAC endorsed the overall Kolbe amendment — which also calls for an end to incitement and provides the $5 million audit — but would not comment on its particulars.

Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum decried the removal of the waiver as a roadblock to reinforcing Abbas’ efforts to quash violence, which have been praised by the Bush and Sharon administrations as effective.

The Reform movement strongly endorsed the $200 million.

Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said throwing obstacles in the way of the assistance was a mistake. “We support the bill as it was,” he said, without the Kolbe amendment. “We share the concern about the possible misuse of funds and we feel that the president would deal with such concerns appropriately.”

The waiver could still be restored in conference with the Senate, a body that is less averse to getting aid to the Palestinians, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said in endorsing the package.

“I hope, in conference with the Senate, we can give back to the president the flexibility he needs to promote U.S. security interests in the region,” she said Tuesday on the House floor during debate on the package.

The only national Jewish organization publicly on board with Weiner’s provisions was the Zionist Organization of America, which is running a national ad campaign that more or less reflects the resolution.

ZOA President Morton Klein, who said he worked closely with Weiner on his resolution, said the decrease in Palestinian violence was deceptive and accused Abbas of continuing to peddle violent rhetoric.

“President Bush is making a historical mistake in funding a terrorist regime,” Klein said.

Another congressman, attending the Peace Now event Monday, said the days of Congress getting in the administration’s way in the Middle East could be numbered.

“I warn opponents of Prime Minister Sharon in Israel: Don’t regard the House of Representatives as an appellate body,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

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