Washington urged to take harder line toward Palestinians


WASHINGTON, March 12 (JTA) — Members of Congress are urging the Bush administration to review its diplomatic treatment of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization in light of the violent uprising against Israel.

Pro-Israel lobbying groups and lawmakers want a review of the current diplomatic privileges the Palestinian Authority and the PLO receive, including freedom of travel to the United States and have a consulate in Washington.

Some lawmakers believe that if the violence continues, the PLO or Arafat could be again placed on the State Department’s lists of terrorists. They were taken off the list in 1993.

The State Department is “not aware” of congressional efforts to review the Palestinians’ status, a department spokesman said, but the subject may be broached when Jewish leaders meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday.

A spokesman from the PLO’s Washington office was unavailable for comment.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to President Bush on Monday, asking him not to invite Arafat to the White House until Palestinian violence against Israel ends. He also said the White House and Congress need to reassess commitments made to the Palestinians after Arafat signed the Oslo peace accords with Israel in 1993.

“I believe we have overlooked many transgressions on the part of the Palestinians in trying to keep the embers of the peace process burning,” Weiner said. “There’s going to be a lot tougher line taken by Congress and, hopefully, the administration.”

Several bills are circulating in the House of Representatives that would cut off non-humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories and downgrade the PLO’s Washington office from an “intersector” office — which has no formal ambassador but carries out most diplomatic tasks — to a mere information office.

Some left-wing groups appear not to agree with the proposed strategy, however.

The Bush administration should think “long and hard” about how cutting off diplomatic ties would affect America’s ability to influence the situation on the ground, said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

“It’s in the United States’ best interest to maintain a healthy line of communication with the Palestinians,” Roth said. “The current structure of that relationship diplomatically allows us to do that.”

The current diplomatic treatment of the Palestinians was revised in 1993 following the agreement signed between Israel and the PLO on the White House lawn. At that time, Palestinian groups were removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and Arafat and other Palestinian leaders were allowed to enter the United States without restriction.

In fact, Arafat visited President Clinton’s White House more than any other foreign leader.

But after nearly six months of violence, lawmakers and Israeli activists want America to pressure Arafat and the Palestinians. They see the Washington perks the Palestinians have enjoyed in recent years as one likely lever and say the current violence shows the Palestinian disregard for the agreements worked out under the Oslo peace process, and question therefore whether the U.S. needs to continue coddling the Palestinians.

The State Department will soon release its semi-annual report on PLO compliance with its commitments to the United States. Under the Palestine Liberation Organization Commitments Compliance Act, Palestinian actions from June 16, 2000, to Dec. 15, 2000, will be reviewed, and some think the report may spur changes in Washington’s treatment of the Palestinians.

As part of its annual agenda of priorities, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has expressed the need to reaffirm that the U.S.-Palestinian relationship is “conditional upon sustained P.A. and PLO compliance with commitments made to Israel and the United States.”

Members of Congress have approached AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, with concerns about the current violence and have consulted about how to get their point across to the Palestinians, AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker said.

“These members have suggested, and we are inclined to agree, that if something is not done about the Palestinian-initiated violence, the United States must seriously consider a significant change in relations between the U.S. and Palestinians,” Bricker said.

These words indicate a sharp departure in policy for the lobbying organization, which just last year was hesitant to support a House-passed measure to cut off aid to the Palestinian territories.

But a lot has changed since last September: almost a half-year of continuous violence, new leadership in Israel and America and a widespread recognition that the Oslo process is dead.

AIPAC now hopes Congress will show the Palestinians that it holds them accountable for the violence that has engulfed the region.

The timing of these measures is significant.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Powell are slated to speak at AIPAC’s annual policy conference next week. As part of his first visit to the United States as prime minister, Sharon also will meet with Bush.

The Bush administration has expressed strong support for Israel, but has held Israel partially responsible for the violence, urging it to end the process of “targeted killings” of Palestinian militants.

Jewish leaders want the Bush administration to stop letting the Palestinians “have it both ways.”

“Too often, we send the wrong message by not holding people accountable to their commitments,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “They are getting the aid, but not doing anything to earn it.”

It’s debatable, however, whether cutting off foreign aid to the Palestinian territories will accomplish the intended goal. The money sent to the territories is run through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which ensures that the dollars are used for humanitarian purposes.

Many believe that a symbolic gesture such as downgrading the PLO’s Washington office or cutting off access to the White House will hit the Palestinian leadership harder.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is planning to introduce legislation that would scale the PLO’s Washington office back to an information office, removing a large portion of its diplomatic role. That bill, which passed the House last year, said such measures should be taken if the Palestinians declare an independent state through means other than the peace process.

Given the latest violence, Nadler is considering widening the scope of his bill, Nadler spokesman Eric Schmeltzer said.

In addition to the letter he sent to Bush, Weiner also introduced legislation that would cut off non- humanitarian aid sent to the Palestinian Authority until Arafat clearly condemns attacks on Israel.

“The Palestinians have effectively walked away from the bargaining table,” Weiner said. “There’s no reason the American taxpayer should stay there holding the bag.”

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