As Israel-u.s. Differences Emerge, Congress and Community Weigh in

Differences between Israel and the Bush administration over Hamas and border crossings recently returned to familiar playing fields: Congress and various factions in the pro-Israel community. Backers of dueling initiatives in the U.S. House of Representatives claimed success last week.

Last Friday, a resolution passed overwhelmingly that opposes Hamas participation in Palestinian legislative elections next month and warns of funding consequences if the terrorist group joins the Palestinian government. Congress exercises oversight over $250 million budgeted for the Palestinians this year, and could block funding.

Also on Friday, a bipartisan slate of 108 members of Congress backed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging a greater U.S. role in pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There was considerable overlap between the vote and the letter, even though sponsors of the anti-Hamas resolution criticized the State Department, while the letter praised Rice for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian deal on border crossings.

The twin messages reflected tensions between Israel and the United States over how tough to act over the Palestinian Authority’s failure to dismantle Hamas and other terrorist groups.

In an extremely rare statement, Israel’s ambassador to the United States praised the substance of the anti-Hamas resolution before the vote was to take place.

“Israel strongly objects to the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian elections,” Daniel Ayalon said Dec. 14 in a statement to the media. “The participation of a terrorist organization in elections contradicts the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law.”

The statement did not explicitly mention the congressional resolution, but its intent, hours before the first vote on the resolution, was unmistakable.

The Dec. 14 vote was delayed, but when the resolution did come to a vote last Friday, it passed overwhelmingly. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied for it, declared victory.

“Terrorists have no place in a democratic society,” AIPAC, which had lobbied for the resolution, said in a statement. “Hamas and other terrorist groups pose a direct threat to the emergence of a peaceful, stable, prosperous Palestinian state capable of living in peace with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Americans for Peace Now led the lobbying for the congressional letter, which urged a level of U.S. involvement that Israel’s government may find uncomfortable. The group said the letter’s 108 signatories showed renewed congressional commitment to the peace process.

“The letter is a remarkable achievement for legislators looking to play a positive role in the peace process and to encourage the administration to continue to be actively involved in trying to end the conflict,” Lewis Roth, the group’s assistant executive director, told JTA. The group had lobbied against the anti-Hamas resolution.

Congressional intrusions into the peace process were routine during the Clinton administration, but Republican control of both houses of Congress has meant that blunt expressions of unhappiness have been rare since President Bush was elected.

That ended with House Resolution 575, which warned that the inclusion of Hamas in a Palestinian Authority government “will potentially undermine the ability of the United States to have a constructive relationship with, or provide further assistance to, the Palestinian Authority.”

The measure passed 397-17. The sponsors had refrained from the usual voice vote, preferring a roll call, a tactic used to hold legislators accountable for their votes.

In a Capitol Hill news conference, sponsors of the resolution said it “sends a clear message to our own State Department that the U.S. Congress will not be taking part” in funding a government that includes Hamas, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House’s Middle East subcommittee.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he wants to wait until after Jan. 25 legislative elections to fulfill his obligation under the “road map” peace plan to disarm Hamas and other terrorist groups. The State Department repeatedly has made clear that it’s not happy with Hamas’ participation in the elections, but says the matter is best left to the Palestinians.

“The timetable in which they deal with that issue is one for the Palestinian people to decide upon,” Sean McCormack, Rice’s spokesman, said last month after Rice met with Saeb Erekat, the top P.A. negotiator.

The same thinking applies to the possibility of Hamas entering the P.A. government. It’s not a prospect that the Bush administration anticipates with pleasure, but the United States already deals with a government in Lebanon that includes a terrorist group, Hezbollah, and with a government in Iraq that likely will include armed groups that have terrorized civilians.

U.S. officials say that, as in Lebanon, they won’t deal with officials or ministers from the terrorist group, but will stop short of banning all contact with the government.

Ayalon’s rare intervention in the congressional vote reflected the escalation of Israel-U.S. tension since Rice spent an unplanned extra day in the region last month to make sure that Israel and the Palestinians came to an agreement giving the Palestinians control, for the first time ever, over an international border crossing.

Israeli officials resented Rice’s intervention on the Gaza Strip-Egypt border, believing the Palestinians were not doing enough to keep out arms smugglers and terrorists.

Following a suicide bombing last week, Israel threatened to suspend planned convoys between Gaza and the West Bank, an ancillary part of the agreement. Israel worries that terrorists could use the convoys to reach the West Bank, which has a much more porous border with Israel.

By mid-week, however, Israel once again conceded under U.S. pressure, and the convoys were due to start this week.

The congressional letter, initiated by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), encouraged the Bush administration to maintain its level of involvement.

“Your role in the achievement of this accord, and the subsequent successful opening of the Gaza crossing point, clearly demonstrate the value of robust, hands-on U.S. diplomatic engagement with Israel and the Palestinians,” it said.

AIPAC was silent on the letter. The Zionist Organization of America lobbied against it.

AIPAC’s reticence reflected Israeli unhappiness with U.S. pressure to take steps that Israel fears might compromise its security. But with the Bush administration looking for achievements in the Middle East and with U.S. impatience growing now that Palestinian violence has ebbed, such a role may be inevitable.

That role also may garner greater support among U.S. Jews. Nine of 26 Jewish members of Congress signed the letter, including two of Israel’s most vocal defenders in Congress, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

Additionally, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, co-signed an Israel Policy Forum letter urging lawmakers to sign the letter to Rice.

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