Effort to limit aid to Palestinians exposes rifts in Congress, community

BY RON KAMPEAS,JTA

WASHINGTON — It brought rifts among pro-Israel groups out into the open. It was behind a very public food fight between a congresswoman and the premiere pro-Israel lobby.

And it probably won’t matter in the end.

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The trees that fell documenting the fight over U.S. legislation that would severely limit American economic assistance to the Palestinians have left the forest very much intact: President Bush will treat the Palestinian Authority and its Hamas rulers however he deems necessary.

“In the end, the president does what he wants,” said one congressional staffer, whose boss strongly favors the legislation, known as the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act.

Bush has made unprecedented use of the “signing statement” — the presidential declaration accompanying signed legislation — to declare his constitutional prerogative to ignore legislation banning torture and requiring oversight for domestic surveillance.

Less significant legislation such as PATA, as the proposed measure is known, will surely get the same treatment, said congressional staffers involved in its drafting.

JTA spoke with four senior congressional staffers about the legislation; all spoke without authorization and asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The fight over the act is more important for revealing rifts in Congress and in the Jewish community over how to treat the Palestinians.

The divisions stem from the vacuum created by the unresolved power struggle between the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, led by the Hamas terrorist group, and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate. They also stem from the effort by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to come up with a policy that will satisfy his diverse and difficult government.

Bush favors keeping lines to Abbas open, and his allies in the U.S. Senate have taken longer to consider the legislation to make sure those provisions are enacted into the law. The Senate was to have voted on the measure last Friday, but a security scare in the Rayburn Senate Office building helped postpone its consideration until next week, when Congress returns from the Memorial Day holiday break.

One key difference between the version passed last week in the U.S. House of Representatives and the version under consideration in the Senate is that the Senate would grant Bush a waiver to fund troops loyal to Abbas.

The Senate version also removes oversight restrictions on emergency aid to the Palestinians through non-governmental organizations.

Skepticism about Abbas, who failed to control Hamas even before its election in January, runs much deeper in the House, where Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., spearheaded the lopsided 361-37 vote in favor of the bill last week. There, the sense is that the refusal to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel permeates not just Hamas, but the Palestinian polity.

The House bill imposes a blanket ban on assistance to the Palestinian Authority, but the Senate version is careful to designate the “Hamas-led Palestinian Authority,” suggesting that its provisions would lapse if and when Hamas was ousted from power.

The sweep of the House version is what prodded three dovish pro-Israel groups to marshal unusually forceful lobbying against it.

In a statement, Americans for Peace Now said the bill was “irresponsible” for “failing to include a sunset clause for draconian performance requirements that will stay on the books regardless of who is running the Palestinian Authority, and by failing to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians who support a two-state solution.”

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom flooded offices with calls and letters, the first time in memory a dovish group went toe-to-toe with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which supported the bill, on the grass-roots level.

Some lawmakers were reporting a 3-1 ratio of calls against the bill.

Also for the first time, Peace Now directly challenged AIPAC in its releases to Congress members. “APN Corrects the Record on the AIPAC ‘FAQs’ Regarding HR 4681,” was the headline of one memo.

“We were compelled to explicitly confront AIPAC over H.R. 4681 because they were the main driving force behind the legislation and because they put out misleading information about the content of the bill and its implications,” said Lewis Roth, Peace Now’s assistant executive director. “APN isn’t looking for a fight with AIPAC, but we won’t shy away from one either.”

APN singled out AIPAC’s claim in its materials that the bill targets a “Hamas-led P.A.” The bill is “a laundry list of mandatory reforms and benchmarks that are totally unrelated to Hamas or stopping terror,” the APN release said. That “undermines the very moderates the U.S. should be supporting,” it said.

AIPAC officials would not speak on the record, but sources close to the group dismiss the APN claims as nonsense. “APN is virtually irrelevant on Capitol Hill, and its effort to oppose the PATA in the House proved an embarrassing failure, with the bill passing 361-37,” said a pro-Israel lobbyist sympathetic with AIPAC’s case.

AIPAC has been open about supporting both the House and Senate versions of the bill, these sources say, because it is important to get a message out as soon as possible that the United States will not fund terrorist groups.

Ultimately, the AIPAC sources say, the House and Senate versions will be resolved in conference, and the message will be out.

But it will come after a nasty fight that burst into public when Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., published a letter she had sent to AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, banning AIPAC lobbyists from her office until he apologized for an AIPAC volunteer who allegedly accused her of supporting terrorism because she opposed the bill.

The Minnesota-based volunteer, Amy Rotenberg, denied making the accusation in a conversation with McCollum’s chief of staff, Bill Harper. Harper stood by his notes from the conversation with Rotenberg.

Ultimately, Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who is close to both Kohr and McCollum, brokered a meeting last week between the two which ended with an agreement to disagree — and to reinstate AIPAC in McCollum’s good graces.

Israel’s friends in Congress breathed a sigh of relief: McCollum is a good friend of the Jewish state and “we didn’t want to turn her into a Moran,” said one, a reference to Rep. James Moran, D-Va., one of Israel’s most consistent critics.

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