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AIPAC conference to push P.A. isolation

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (JTA) — Activists attending this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference will pause briefly to savor Iran’s long-awaited isolation — and then get to work making sure the Palestinian Authority gets the same treatment. A central focus of this year’s policy conference will be legislation that includes the toughest conditions to date for American assistance to the Palestinian Authority, in the wake of Hamas’ landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections last month. “The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (H.R. 4681) will ban direct aid and severely limit indirect assistance to the P.A. until the president certifies that the P.A. is not controlled by a terrorist group and until Hamas agrees to fight terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said this week in a statement. “Similar legislation is currently being worked on in the Senate.” The policy conference, taking place this year from March 5-7, draws between 5,000 and 6,000 activists to Washington and is the annual centerpiece for the pro-Israel lobby. The final day of the conference is reserved for lobbying on Capitol Hill, and organizers tell JTA that lobbying for the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act will top the agenda. That presents a change from recent years, when the principal focus of such lobbying was Iran’s nuclear program; last year, the conference featured a virtual tour of an Iranian nuclear weapons lab. Iran will still play a major role at the conference. The opening plenary, featuring former nuclear inspector David Kay and John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is on “How the International Community Can Stop Iran.” The very title suggests the sea change in recent months: There is no longer any question that the international community wants to stop Iran. And with the Islamic republic referred this month to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions, AIPAC’s long and at times lonely fight seems vindicated. Now the focus is on Hamas. Last week, AIPAC distributed talking points to Congress members promoting legislation initiated by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) that would stifle aid for the Palestinian Authority and for non-governmental organizations. The Palestinian Authority would have to prove it is not employing a single member of Hamas or any other group on U.S. terrorism lists; dismantle all terrorist groups; halt all anti-Israel incitement in any sector it controls and replace it with materials promoting coexistence; and ensure democracy and financial transparency. Those certifications go beyond the reporting requirements in place under current U.S. legislation. For instance, the Palestinian Authority would have to prove that it is a transparent democracy before the first dollar arrived, instead of merely showing progress. P.A. officials would have to show that incitement had been crushed and replaced by coexistence, instead of simply pulling occasional inciting school texts and broadcasts. The provisions are also much tougher because they extend to indirect assistance, cutting off non-governmental organizations. The only exception is for humanitarian assistance. It also reduces U.S. payments to the United Nations commensurate with the percentage of the U.N. budget that goes to the Palestinian Authority. The legislation also tightens President Bush’s options for circumvention. It omits any national security waivers related to aid, and requires a 15-day waiting period before humanitarian aid goes forward. The administration is fighting the bill, partly because it impinges on Bush’s fierce protection of his foreign policy prerogative. “Of course, the White House would like to have more waivers in the bill because of national security concerns,” Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged in a Feb. 2 news conference announcing the bill. “It’s going to be an ongoing discussion.” In an attempt to slow the bill, the administration got its friends in Congress to rush through a non-binding resolution that calls for a ban on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as a party calling for Israel’s destruction controls more than half the legislature. Under the provisions of the resolution, which passed both houses overwhelmingly, the simple ouster of Hamas would be enough to allow direct aid; indirect aid would not be affected at all. The resolution was initiated two weeks ago by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and shepherded through the House of Representatives this week by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Hyde is close to the State Department. Voting for the resolution could provide a degree of cover for members of Congress when AIPAC activists swarm congressional offices next month pressing the much tougher Ros-Lehtinen-Lantos bill. In a Feb. 15 floor speech, Hyde suggested he would use his powers as committee chairman to slow down the other bill. “Tying the hands of this administration is not in the interests of national security,” he said. “Hurting the Palestinian people will reward terrorist regimes like Syria and Iran, which seek to exploit the suffering of the Palestinians for their own selfish reasons.” In any case, Hyde said, Ros-Lehtinen’s bill would not be considered “in advance of the formation of the new Palestinian Cabinet, which is likely to occur in the coming weeks.” By then the bill could be significantly transformed, as negotiators address elements that the administration considers impractical. For instance, should an earthquake hit the Palestinian areas Bush would have to wait 15 days before he could fly in humanitarian assistance. Another administration worry is that the bill seems aimed less at Hamas then it is at tying the administration’s hands, no matter who runs the Palestinian Authority. Existing law on designated terrorist groups already bans aid to any Hamas-led government. And the Palestinian Authority has not received direct aid for years, a consequence of its pervasive corruption. Funds are currently administered solely by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and paid only to non-P.A. contractors. “The administration has a whole range of problems with the Ros-Lehtinen bill, ranging from all stick, no carrot to it being a blanket lifetime ban of aid even if reforms are enacted,” said one senior congressional staffer who asked to speak anonymously because the legislation has yet to come to the floor. The bill’s proponents say its toughness is proportional to the failure to contain Hamas by leaders that the United States considered moderate, including P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. “Things keep getting worse which is why congressional conditions keep getting more stringent,” said a senior staffer for a Democrat in Congress who strongly favors the bill. “You now have a terrorist organization running the Palestinian Authority.”