With the pace of U.S. Mideast diplomacy quickening, the congressional battle over aid and diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority may be about to erupt anew as a leading pro-Israel congresswoman tries to throw new hurdles in the path of the Bush administration.
Late last week the office of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) — the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — floated new legislation toughening sanctions on the PA in the wake of last month’s establishment of a “unity government.”
That comes only months after Congress passed the softer Senate version of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act (PATA) despite fierce lobbying by groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which favored a more stringent version passed by the House.
In a memo to
fellow foreign policy staffers, obtained by The Jewish Week, a top Ros-Lehtinen aide made the goals of the expected bill explicit: “To counter attempts by Rice/State to deal with unity govt [sic] and send assistance to non-Hamas members of unity government.”
That puts Ros-Lehtinen and other key lawmakers who are likely to support the new legislation — as well as the pro-Israel lobby — on a collision course with the Bush administration, which continues to explore ways to work with Palestinian “moderates” while maintaining the economic and diplomatic boycott on Hamas, a partner in the new Palestinian unity government.
“It’s a pointless exercise designed to do nothing more than try to thwart Secretary Rice,” said M.J. Rosenberg, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), a group that supports stronger U.S. peace efforts in the region. “The Senate rejected this language last year, when the Republicans were in control, and they will certainly reject it this time around.”
A longtime pro-Israel activist here said that “it’s an effort to box the administration in and send a message that Congress doesn’t want to see any movement, any real contact, as long as Hamas has any part in this government and as long as it doesn’t accept the internationally mandated conditions for ending the boycott.”
But the pro-Israel lobby is quietly expressing concerns that the administration may be too eager to deal with members of the unity government like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and too willing to provide humanitarian and security assistance that could benefit Hamas.
U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians has increased, from $400 million in 2005 to $460 million last year. Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad is scheduled to travel to Europe early this month to press for a resumption of EU aid in the wake of the creation of a Hamas-Fatah unity government in March.
There are indications key pro-Israel members of Congress are willing to cut the Bush administration some slack in providing some kinds of aid to the Palestinians under the new unity government.
In February, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) held up an administration request for $86 million in aid to build up security forces loyal to Abbas because she said the administration did not provide sufficient information about how the money would be used.
But last week the pro-Israel lawmaker, a powerhouse in the foreign policy appropriations process, lifted the hold after the administration came back with a smaller and more targeted request.
Lowey said she remains “extremely troubled that the unity government has not met basic conditions necessary to be a real partner for peace with Israel and the United States,” but that she will not block the new request for $59 million.
“This new request focuses on training and non-lethal equipment for the Presidential Guard under President Abbas and improving the physical security infrastructure on the Palestinian side of the Karni/al-Mintar crossing point between Gaza and Israel, which is Gaza’s economic lifeline,” she said. “By improving efficiency and security at this critical commercial crossing, this assistance will help to improve the security at Karni and, ultimately, economic conditions for the Palestinian people.”
The new request, she said, may help “engage and strengthen moderate voices in the West Bank and Gaza.”
That’s consistent with the positions of the Israeli government, but some pro-Israel activists here and some members of Congress still worry that the administration is gradually easing its boycott of the Hamas-led PA.
The expected new fight over Palestinian aid and diplomatic contacts also comes on the heels of Rice’s fourth trip to the region last week. Rice won an agreement from Abbas and Olmert to hold biweekly talks on day-to-day issues, but agreed not to press for immediate talks on final-status issues after meeting stiff resistance from the Olmert government.
Few observers expect any more than a U.S. diplomatic holding action.
“It’s peace processing, not peace making,” said Judith Kipper, adviser for Middle East Programs at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It may reduce some tension, but it doesn’t change things, despite raised expectations.”
Still, groups on the right and many lawmakers are worried that Washington will succumb to international pressure.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group supports the pending House measure.
“We need the strongest legislation we can get to bring President Bush back to his senses,” Klein said. “He should be as tough on Abbas as he is on Hamas and al Qaeda.”
The administration, Klein charges, is “softening” its approach to a Palestinian Authority still dominated by Hamas.
“Rice is promoting this faction that Abbas is a peacemaker and that the Palestinian Arabs want peace,” he said. “So we have to make the legislation even stronger.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s new legislation would take “current law and bring it to the threshold of the House-passed PATA,” according to a memo sent to House Foreign Affairs committee staffers.
The new legislation notes the creation of the new Palestinian unity government and restates the demands of the international Quartet for easing the boycott against the PA, including recognition of Israel, agreeing to abide by previous agreements and ending terrorism.
It also would extend sanctions — even if Hamas loses influence within the PA — and bar all PA officials, including Abbas, from receiving U.S. visas.
But groups on the left say the proposed legislation is really aimed at undercutting U.S. peace efforts, which have been ratcheted up a notch with Rice’s fourth trip to the region last week.