Congress’ Bad Behavior

While the Palestinian Authority, under new leadership, is making a determined effort to reform and reorganize, entrenched anti-peace forces in the US Congress present real barriers to forward movement. Evidence of their continuing ability to define the limits of what is possible was on display this month.

When Congress acted to push through new immigration constrictions, they retained the anti-PLO provision in place since the mid-1990’s. The law classifies “an alien who is an officer, official, representative, or spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization…to be engaged in a terrorist activity” and, therefore, inadmissible to the United States. As a result, Palestinians affiliated with the PLO (this includes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) may only qualify for visas to the US if granted a special Presidential waiver.

As insulting as this may be to the new Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership and as damaging as it may be to the Bush Administration’s effort to engage the new leadership, the insult and damage were compounded when another Congressional committee considered the Administration’s request for increased assistance to the PA.

President Bush has requested an immediate reprogramming of $200 million of previously approved but unspent funding to be used for quick job creation programs to help the PA demonstrate progress. At the same time the Administration requested a doubling of annual US assistance to the PA to $150 million.

A bi-partisan group of anti-Palestinian members of Congress quickly responded by proposing legislation to place severe new restrictions on the Palestinian aid request. One bill called for denying any aid:

“directly or indirectly to the Palestinian Authority (or to any successor or related entity) or for programs, projects, and activities in the West Bank or Gaza unless the President determines and certifies…that-

1). the leadership of the Palestinian Authority-

a). is not tainted by violence;

b). has publicly rebuked Palestinian violence and terror;

c). has ended hateful incitement; and

d). has taken all actions within its capacity to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism; and

2). the violence in the West Bank and Gaza has subsided.”

Still other influential members called for withholding any new US aid to the Palestinians unless “oil rich Arab states” could be shown to have increased their aid to the PA.

Facing potential backlash and pressure from the House leadership, the Congressional committee responsible for recommending the Administration’s aid request to the whole Congress amended the Palestinian aid package adding a series of unprecedented conditions including:

– Setting aside $5 million from the aid request for an independent audit of PA accounting procedures and expenditures;

– Prohibiting the President’s ability to give any of the $200 million directly to the PA; and

– Requiring the President to report to Congress on a range of PA reforms including: steps taken to reorganize security services, actions taken to stop “incitement,” steps taken to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure,” PA cooperation into investigations into Yasser Arafat’s finances, and the amount of aid given to the PA by other donors.

Even this was not enough for members hostile to Palestinians. On March 15, an effort was made to delete the entire $ 200 million aid request.

Arguments that these actions were motivated by Palestinian’s “lack of compliance” and were not motivated by a pandering anti-Palestinian animus, simply don’t hold water. Congress did pass Israel’s aid request without any reservations despite recent revelations contained in an official Israeli government report that various government ministries have been providing funding for illegal West Bank outposts that were to have been removed in compliance with the Roadmap. The Israeli report found that both the Defense and Housing Ministries “lent aid to the establishment of dozens of illegal outposts…allocated land, including private owned Palestinian land,…hauled trailers to the outposts…and provided [these illegal outposts] protection…”

And yet, despite the uproar that this report caused in Israel, Congress was silent and took no action to require Israeli compliance with the Roadmap.

The bizarre nature of these one-sided anti-Palestinian provisions were noted by a number of commentators, especially since they are far more restrictive than any passed by Congress during Yasser Arafat’s tenure as PA President, and represent a dramatic challenge by anti-peace supporters of Israel among the Democrats and far-right Republicans to efforts being taken by President Bush to show support for the new Palestinian leadership.

What is important to note, however, is the fact that prominent pro-peace voices in the American Jewish community have been vocal in challenging this obstructionist behavior. They accused Congress of “playing politics with the Middle East,” noting that their “actions sent the wrong message to Israelis, Palestinians, and the world.” While these pro-peace Jewish leaders may not be in a position to stop this anti-Palestinian legislation from passing, they do create the renewed possibility for joint Arab Americans and American Jewish coalition efforts to support fragile peace efforts now underway.