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Congress Returns to a Full Plate of Issues Related to Middle East

September 3, 2003
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A summer of bloodshed has stalled President Bush’s “road map” to Israeli- Palestinian peace, and Jewish groups and lawmakers want the White House back in the driver’s seat.

As Congress returned this week from its summer recess, the Israel Policy Forum and others worried that other priorities — including lingering fighting in Iraq and Bush’s re-election campaign — would move the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to a back burner.

“The question is what the administration wants to do and how hard it wants to push,” said M.J. Rosenberg, IPF’s policy director. “It’s a call the administration is going to have to make.”

Many lawmakers who traveled to the Middle East over the summer break believe increased U.S. pressure on the Palestinian Authority is key to stemming violence, which peaked with an Aug. 19 bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 people.

Already, lawmakers have signed letters urging the White House to reconsider its statements critical of the security fence Israel is building to keep terrorists from infiltrating from the West Bank. Palestinians say portions of the fence jut into territory they claim as their own.

Lawmakers also talk of adding a provision to the foreign aid spending bill, currently in conference committee, to stop the White House from deducting certain costs of the security fence from the $9 billion in loan guarantees the United States recently agreed to give Israel.

The White House appears to have backed away from its threat to subtract the fence expenses, but congressional officials are keeping their options open in case administration policy changes.

Lawmakers also remain concerned about the continuing support for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Palestinian areas. U.S. policy has been to marginalize Arafat.

Representatives from both parties who traveled to the Middle East last month with a foundation associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were disappointed to see a picture of Arafat on the wall of the office of the P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

But supporters of Israel are heartened by recent White House comments calling for the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist organizations and consolidate security forces under Abbas, which would remove a major source of Arafat’s power.

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lawmakers are looking at several other regional issues.

One is the expansion of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which Congress reauthorized in 2001 for five years. The legislation calls for sanctions against foreign companies investing in the energy sectors of Iran and Libya, making it harder for them to do business in the United States.

A new bill, backed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House International Relations Committee’s Middle East panel, would increase enforcement of the sanctions and tighten loopholes that have allowed some companies to go unpunished for doing business with those countries.

Also under consideration is an amendment that would prevent foreign companies that do business with Iran and Libya from helping rebuild Iraq’s energy sector, which is currently under American authority.

Supporters say the increased enforcement would bring the legislation closer to its original goal of leveling the playing field for American energy companies, which are forbidden to do business with Iran and Libya.

Ros-Lehtinen also is expected to lead a series of hearings this month on the Syria Accountability Act, which would sanction Syria for its support of terrorist groups and its attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The bill has enough support to pass Congress but is being held up by opposition from the White House, which frequently rejects foreign policy legislation that it believes ties its hands.

The White House is believed to be using the threat of support for the Syria legislation in discussions with the Syrian regime about reforming its behavior.

In addition, a Middle East subcommittee hearing set for Sept. 10 will explore Saudi Arabia’s ties to terrorism financing.

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