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Even when ‘road Map’ is Rolling, Groups Still See Role for Congress

July 1, 2003
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The latest positive developments along the “road map” peace plan have come at an inconvenient time for Congress — when it’s on recess.

Lawmakers often are eager to parse the latest moves in the Middle East and weigh in with what they think the Bush administration should be doing differently.

But with Palestinian terrorist groups declaring a cease-fire and Israel withdrawing from the Gaza Strip this week, officials in Washington say there is little that legislators can contribute right now: They, like everyone else, will have to wait and see what develops on the ground.

Before leaving Washington for a two-week recess, the House of Representatives last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Palestinian terrorism against Israel after a June 4 summit in Aqaba, Jordan, and expressing solidarity with victims of terrorism.

Leaders of Arab and dovish Jewish groups are concerned by Congress’ hawkish sentiments, saying they’re inconsistent with public opinion either in the United States or in Israel. Thus the groups are happy that this week’s moves occurred when Congress was not able to counter-balance them with “one-sided resolutions,” in the words of one congressional official.

“It’s time for certain segments of Congress to catch up with the peace process that is outpacing the political scene in Washington,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

Supporters say political pressures force many lawmakers to automatically support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s position on issues, without examining them in depth.

“On this issue, there has been a very deliberate effort by those who support the Likud Party to use Congress against the White House and the State Department,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

Lawmakers tend to use their platform to obstruct positive developments, he said, adding that the best thing they can do is “step out of the way.”

Arab and dovish Jewish groups have been working to show lawmakers a different point of view. For example, Diana Butu, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill in June, explaining that a cease-fire by Palestinian terrorist groups would be more practical than a crackdown on the groups, given Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ tentative control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And they are heartened by the fact that the House resolution, which passed 399-5, did offer some historic achievements for their cause: It was the first time lawmakers openly supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, praised P.A. efforts to confront terrorism and expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians.

“If you scratched the surface, what you saw in that debate was a kind of support for what Mahmoud Abbas is doing,” one congressional aide said. “There is a growing view in Congress that it is in their interest to keep pushing the peace process.”

Morton Klein, national president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, said Congress still has an important role to play even when the peace process is moving forward.

“The thing that is being ignored, which is critical, is that there must be pressure to end the promotion of hatred and murder in Palestinian television and radio,” Klein said.

He is advising lawmakers to keep pushing that issue, along with other steps that the road map requires of the Palestinians.

“Congress should be talking about stopping money to the Palestinian Authority if they can’t do what is required,” Klein said.

“Those of us who are skeptical — while rooting for success, it’s incumbent on us to keep the expectations at a reasonable level,” he said.

While lawmakers are unlikely to criticize Israel for making major concessions, such as withdrawing this week from the Gaza Strip, they might criticize the Bush administration for placing Israel in an untenable position, he said.

“I think the president’s release of the road map was a complete retreat from his” landmark policy speech of June 24, 2002, Weiner told JTA.

In that speech, Bush set forth a series of conditions the Palestinians would have to meet before earning a state — including replacing P.A. President Yasser Arafat, who many analysts say continues to pull the strings in the Palestinian Authority.

“There is broad recognition that Sharon is in a position where he can’t say no,” Weiner said.

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