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After Sept. 11 and Weapons Ship, New Push to Cut Ties to Palestinians

January 28, 2002
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For the first time since the Oslo peace process began, both the White House and Congress are considering cutting ties with the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat.

Israel’s advocates in Congress have been seeking sanctions against the Palestinian Authority since the Palestinian intifada began more than a year ago, but both the Clinton and Bush administrations rebuffed attempts to restrict relations with the Palestinians.

Now, however, growing frustration in the White House over Arafat’s refusal to take responsibility or provide answers for a huge weapons shipment Israel seized earlier this month finally has put both branches of government on the same page.

“I am disappointed in Yasser Arafat,” Bush said last Friday. “He must make a full effort to rout out terror in the Middle East.”

Instead, Bush noted, the P.A.’s weapons smuggling only served to enhance terror.

On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney added to the criticism of the Palestinian Authority — and of Arafat.

“Based on the intelligence we’ve seen, the people that were involved were so close to him it’s hard not to believe that he wasn’t” involved in the weapons smuggling, Cheney told “Fox News Sunday.”

Cheney also says the incident points to disturbing links between Arafat and international terrorism.

“What he’s done is gone to a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, and a state that supports and promotes terrorism, that’s dedicated to ending the peace process, Iran, and done business with them,” he said.

Over the past week, the Bush administration has held numerous meetings to discuss possible sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, with Bush reaching out to his Cabinet and lawmakers who met with Arafat recently on Mideast trips.

Administration officials feel Arafat has not made enough effort to curb violence, despite unprecedented U.S. and international pressure.

The weapons shipment is seen as a further sign that Arafat’s true goal is to exacerbate rather than end the conflict. The P.A.’s apparent cooperation with Iran in the affair seen as a new low for the Palestinian leader.

A U.S. Jewish leader said he supports sanctions against Arafat.

“It’s the only reality Arafat will react to,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He has constantly bailed out” on clamping down on terror.

Hoenlein added that he believes the administration is exasperated.

“Clearly their patience with Arafat has run out,” he said.

Still, the administration has not reached a consensus on how to proceed. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly favor cutting ties with Arafat. On the other hand, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly favors more moderate steps, such as suspending the mission of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.

Zinni’s return to the region has been delayed because of the weapons-smuggling incident.

“If you slam the door in somebody’s face, you automatically shut the dialogue,” said Chambliss, chairman of a House subcommittee on terrorism and security.

For now, the Bush administration has sufficed with stiffening its rhetoric. Last Friday, Powell described a telephone conversation he had with Arafat on Jan. 23.

“We continue to give a strong message to Chairman Arafat that he must act, and we continue to review our policy with respect to the Palestinian Authority under Chairman Arafat, and I expect I’ll be speaking to him again in the future to see what he is able to do or what progress we can make,” Powell said.

Bush recently sent letters to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, showing proof that the Palestinian Authority was involved in smuggling 50 tons of weapons aboard the Karine A ship that Israel seized in the Red Sea on Jan. 3.

The White House also has stopped urging Israel to show restraint, justifying the placement of Israeli tanks around Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters, which essentially has kept Arafat under house arrest.

“We understand Israel’s need to take steps to ensure its security,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Jan. 24.

The debate over what to do with Arafat is expected to continue for some time, as U.S. officials will wait for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit on Feb. 7 before making a final decision. The meeting was arranged at Bush’s invitation, Israeli officials say.

An aide to Arafat warned that a U.S. decision to cut ties “will cause an earthquake in the region that no one will be able to stop.”

“What is needed is to isolate Sharon,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, urging Bush administration officials not to invite Sharon to Washington.

In a press release, the P.A. Cabinet blamed Israel for the American position.

“The Palestinian Authority is astonished by the positions of some Americans who have been convinced by the Israeli propaganda and lies,” the statement said. “The Israelis are aiming in this way to destroy the important American role in the region.”

If the United States doesn’t cut ties, it still can take other symbolic or substantive measures against the Palestinian Authority, including cutting humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington office or placing the Palestinian Authority, the PLO or its Fatah faction on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

Cutting ties with Arafat or the Palestinian Authority is considered unlikely, but many in Congress have been pushing for it since Palestinians erupted in violence in September 2000.

Numerous pieces of legislation have been introduced calling for sanctions to punish the Palestinian Authority for its alleged ties to terrorism. Those bills rarely have gone through the legislative process, thwarted by White House pressure to not tie the administration’s hands as it tries to forge Mideast peace.

Those bills that have become law have included national security waivers, which presidents have used to avoid the sanctions, ostensibly in the interest of U.S. security.

Many lawmakers visited the Middle East during Congress’ winter vacation, though several pointedly refused to meet with Arafat.

“We have got to sever ties and send a message,” Cantor said. “Any kind of moderation, I don’t think, gets us anywhere.”

The prevailing view is that if there ever were a time that the White House would defer to Congress’ will on sanctions, it is now.

Ackerman introduced legislation last year to sanction the Palestinian Authority if the president found it was not upholding its commitments to Israel.

The move passed the House as part of last year’s foreign aid bill, but was watered down in the Senate under pressure from Powell.

Ackerman plans to push for the bill to be passed again as a stand alone measure, and believes it has a better chance of becoming law this time.

“The administration is coming to understand that unless you do something, the Palestinians will come back only with words,” he said. “Words don’t work in this case.”

Ackerman said he believes the speculation over his bill helped prompt the debate at the White House.

Action by Congress would give the administration a chance to take a stance against the Palestinian Authority without appearing to be too proactive. The White House could sign and enact legislation without having to initiate the sanctions.

That would alleviate pressure from the Arab community, which undoubtedly would react unfavorably to sanctions.

Also driving the discussion is the “Bush doctrine,” based on Bush’s comments after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. At the time, Bush said that countries either work for terrorism or against it– and that those that support terrorism would be punished.

That new mentality, coupled with Arafat’s actions, has led to the reassessment.

If the president does take significant steps against the Palestinians, he may have trouble selling it to the Arab world or even his own State Department. But the reception on both sides of the congressional aisle is likely to be favorable.

“We continue to witness a tremendous display of American might and American will to stand up for our freedom and these values we treasure,” Cantor said. “The way we win this fight against international terrorism is through strength and completing the job.”

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