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On Eve of Olmert Visit, Mixed Signals on Palestinian Aid Confuse Congress

May 10, 2006
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When Ehud Olmert gets a rare chance to explain to the combined houses of the U.S. Congress exactly what he wants, legislators will be more attentive than usual. Barely two weeks before the Israeli prime minister’s May 25 speech to Congress, a much-heralded congressional initiative to isolate the Palestinian Authority is in limbo, in part because no one is quite sure what Israel wants.

Top members of Congress, administration officials and senior diplomats are sorting through conflicting signals from Israel and its supporters as they attempt to formulate a policy on how to assist Palestinians while isolating their leaders.

Olmert arrives May 21, meets President Bush on May 23 and then addresses Congress. The congressional speech is a rare honor, one actively solicited by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups.

Olmert needs the reinforcement as he launches a plan to unilaterally withdraw from more of the West Bank. To get that support, he’ll have to present a detailed outline of how he plans to deal with the Palestinians.

One sign of the confusion: The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which had accumulated 291 co-sponsors in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, was guaranteed passage in a vote scheduled for Tuesday when it was abruptly removed from the congressional calendar.

Ostensibly that was because Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked to sign off on the bill because it includes travel restrictions on Palestinian officials, and visas are his purview. The bill had been referred to the full House by the International Relations Committee, where it had been introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Sensenbrenner’s committee was to consider the bill Wednesday.

Yet congressional staffers involved in the negotiations insist Sensenbrenner’s staff already had signed off on the final draft. Furthermore, since last week Ros-Lehtinen had been blitzing journalists and fellow legislators with predictions that the bill would pass.

That left Hill staffers wondering what was really going on.

Israel’s mixed signals were part of the problem. Olmert’s government is not yet a week old, and he has yet to work out exactly how to deal with a Palestinian Authority tugged in different directions by the Cabinet — led by the terrorist group Hamas — and Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate P.A. president from the Fatah Party.

Members of Congress who look to Israel for guidance wanted to wait until Olmert could articulate where exactly Israel stood before clamping down on the Palestinians.

That could take a few days. Israel is stinging from reports such as one in the New York Times on Monday describing a Gaza Strip on the verge of collapse because of its isolation. And while Israel is loathe to prop up the Hamas government in any way, some government officials feel that if Gaza plunges into chaos, it could endanger Israel and remove any leverage Israel has left with P.A. security forces.

Representatives of the “Quartet,” the diplomatic grouping of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, met Tuesday in New York to consider the problem. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, pledged $10 million in emergency assistance to the Palestinians, but said Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism remained the critical issue.

“No one wants to deal with a Palestinian government, that when there is a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, finds it reason to celebrate,” she said.

The Europeans reportedly have proposed paying overdue salaries to 165,000 P.A. employees through Abbas or through a World Bank mechanism. The Americans and the Israelis say the fungibility of money effectively means this will prop up Hamas, but they want to sustain livable conditions for the Palestinians.

In any case, it was clear that the Bush administration opposed the restrictions in Ros-Lehtinen’s bill. In a strongly worded memo to House members distributed late last week, the State Department said the bill was “unnecessary” and was too restrictive of direct assistance to Abbas, a conduit the administration favors.

The Bush administration wants flexibility in dealing with Abbas “to ensure he can fulfill his duties as president, prevent Hamas from taking over the rest of the P.A. and the PLO, and prevail in any confrontation with Hamas,” the memo said.

For Congress members, the mixed signals were coming not just from Israel but from the pro-Israel community as well. Congressional staffers said a combined phone blitz by three dovish groups opposed to the Ros-Lehtinen bill was having an effect.

For the first time in a long time, as one staffer put it, there were “two possible pro-Israel votes”: for and against the bill.

The three groups are Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. The groups say the bill’s restrictions on presidential flexibility in dealing with the Palestinians are too broad and not limited to Hamas, but apply to the entire Palestinian political spectrum.

The legislation “undermines the U.S. role in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table towards the end of achieving a two-state resolution of the conflict,” the Alliance said in a letter to Congress members, backed up by phone calls from the group’s grass-roots membership.

Another concern was that restrictions on assistance to non-governmental organizations that deal with the Palestinians would deepen the crisis.

The Israel Policy Forum “opposes aid to Hamas and any entity controlled by Hamas, but it strongly opposes legislation, such as this, which obstructs the delivery of essential aid to the Palestinian people,” the group said in e-mails to legislators.

Such appeals apparently were having an effect. AIPAC, which lobbied hard for the bill, told journalists the delay was “procedural,” but in a private alert to its members AIPAC “strongly urged” them to maintain support for the bill by calling their representatives in Congress.

The alert outlined talking points to rebuff the dovish groups’ points. The Senate and House versions of the act “allow humanitarian assistance to flow unfettered and maintain the president’s flexibility to provide indirect non-humanitarian project assistance if he deems it is in the national security interests of the United States,” the AIPAC memo said.

Within hours, Peace Now had e-mailed House members a rebuttal to AIPAC’s rebuttal, saying the bill excessively restricts presidential prerogative.

The House version “requires the president to certify not only that the provision of such aid will further the national security interests of the U.S., but that he get Congress to approve such assistance in advance on a case-by-case basis, and that he explain how failure to provide the assistance would conflict with U.S. national security interests,” Peace Now said.

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