Palestinians light candles to honor the late South African leader Nelson Mandela as they mourn in Gaza City, Gaza, Dec. 8, 2013.
LEFT: Marwan Barghouti in Tel Aviv District Court on the opening day of his trial, Aug. 14, 2002; RIGHT: Nelson Mandela is released from prison, Feb. 11, 1990.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1989, Page 7, 45
The Beginning of the End of an Era?
By Dennis Wamsted
Opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organization has long been one of the touchstones used by the pro-Israel lobby to determine the strength of a congressman's support. And with only rare exceptions, recent sessions of Congress have slavishly obeyed this pro-Israel dictate. But, judging by the events of the past six weeks, Israel's stranglehold on Congress may well be coming to end.
In a virtually unprecendented move in late July, the US Senate voted overwhelmingly against an amendment to the State Department authorization bill that in effect would have ended the US-PLO dialogue initiated by former president Ronald Reagan. The 75-23 vote against the amendment, which was offered by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), as well as the floor debate that preceded it, indicated clearly that the Senate favors the continuation of the dialogue, notwithstanding Israel's outspoken opposition.
Senate Leaders Blast Helms Plan
Indicative of the importance of this debate, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) and Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-KS)- who is by no means a friend of the PLO- led the opposition to Helms' amendment, speaking out strongly against the proposal dduring the floor debate.
"Adoption of this amendment will, frankly, set back the search for peace in the Middle East," Mitchell said. "Adoption of this amendment will end the US dialogue with the PLO. That dialogue is essential to the US efforts to encourage discussions between Israelis and Palestinians."
In addition, the amendment "raises extremely troubling questions about the Congress' ability to restrict the president's ability to conduct negotiations," Mitchell continued. "It is improper and unwise for the prerogative to determine the course of US negotiations." Senator Helms' amendment would tell the president "whom he can talk to. I believe that to be wholly unwarranted and inappropriate."
Sen. Dole was equally emphatic in his opposition to the proposal- even though he has been sharply critical of the PLO in the past and supported legislation to close the organization's Washington office. "I have always had reservations about renewing contacts with the PLO. . .But i would not want to be a party to anything that might stop the peace process in its tracks. . .It just seems to me it would not be in our interest to sort of pull the plug, tell the president you cannot talk, and you cannot have a dialogue unless certain conditions are met."
While admitting that he had reservations about former President Reagan's decision to begin talks with the PLO, Dole said: "It is absolutely clear that, having done that. . .it would be very destructive of our interests to pull the plug on our contacts."
Perhaps even more telling, Helms' proposal was opposed by two of Israel's strongest backers- Sens. Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) and Rudy Boschwitz (R-MN), both of whom are Jewish. "We have to recognize that the administration feels that the Helms amendment. . .would tie their hands and would make it impossible for them to move forward ini the Middle East efforts," Metzenbaum told his Senate colleagues. "I accept their representations."
Interestingly, Metzenbaum also questioned congressional oversight authority regarding the administration's dialogue with the PLO. "Should we be talking to the PLO at all?" he asked rhetorically. "The fact is that decision is not the decision of the Congress of the United States. That decision belongs to the president of the United States and the secretary of state. That is a policy decision for them to make. "Should the Senate revisit this issue, Metzenbaum's arguments will undoubtedly be used by the administration to buttress its case for talking with the PLO.
Under the terms of Helms' amendment, the president "would be called upon to prove a negative, which is absolutely impossible to do," Boschwitz added. Such a development would damage the Middle East peace process, harming all sides of the conflict.
A Compromise Plan
After the vote against Helms' proposal, Sens. Mitchell and Dole introduced a compromise amendment, which enabled the Senate to reaffirm its opposition to terrorism while retaining sufficient flexibility for the administration to continue the US-PLO dialogue. The amendment, which was drafted in close consultation with the administration, was adopted by an overwhelming margin of 97-1, with Helms being the sole dissenter.
The Mitchell-Dole proposal, which was cosponsored by a melange of senators, including such pro-Israel stalwarts as Boschwitz, Metzenbaum and Daniel Inouye (D-HI), differed markedly from Helms' restrictive proposal. The Mitchell-Dole language forbids discussions with the PLO or its representatives "if the president knows and advises the Congress that that representative directly participated in the planning or execution of a particular terrorist activity which resulted in the death or kidnapping of an American citizen."
By contrast, Helms' proposal would have prohibited negotiations with any PLO representative "unless and until the president certifies to Congress that he has determined the representative did not directly participate in, or conspire in, or was an accessory to the planning or execution of a terrorist activity which resulted in death, injury or kidnapping of an American citizen."
Legislation similar to the Helms proposal was introduced in the House by Rep. Edward Feighan (D-OH) just prior to the beginning of chamber's month-long summer recess. Modeled after the Helms' amendment, it would require the president to certify that PLO negotiators have not directly participated in attacks against Americans.
The proposal's outlook in the House is uncertain at this time, although there will be plenty of opportunity for consideration of the measure when the House returns to Washington in September.
Another Israeli Setback
In another stinging rebuke, both the House and Senate adopted resolutions before the beginning of Congress' traditional August recess criticizing Israel for its decision to close all of the Palestinian schools on the occupied West Bank. The two similarily worded amendments, pushed by Sen. John Chafee (R-RI) and Rep. Howard Nielson (R-UT), urged Israel to open all of the schools at an early date and cautioned against closing them for "political purposes."
Although neither resolution explicitly condemned Israel's actions, the degree of unhappiness with the Israeli government's policy was evident in the floor debate in both chambers. Sen. Chafee, who was targeted unsuccessfully by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in his reelection campaign last fall, blasted Israel's behavior: "No other nation of which I know. . .has ever resorted in an occupied territory or a territory in civil conflict to close all the schools. This has not happened in Northern Ireland. It has not happened in South Africa. It has not happened in Nicaragua."
Chafee also deflected anticipated criticism from Israel's congressional supporters that this is too sensitive a time to raise this amendment. "The problem," Chafee said, "is that rationale can be used to justify the status quo under any circumstances because there is no time that is not sensitive."
Further, when several pro-Israel senators, including Sens. Boschwitz and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), tried to defend Israel's actions by recalling all of the government's positive education-related initiatives, Chafee dismissed their sophistry. "On the West Bank, it went beyond the closure of the schools, unfortunately. I mean, that is bad enough. . . But it went further than that, that the authorities would not even allow the distribution of homework. In other words, the youngsters could not take work home to do during this period when the schools were closed."
A similar scenario was replayed in the House, where Rep. Nielson sharply criticized the Israeli government's actions, and downplayed their past support for educational facilities on the West Bank. "The blanket closure of all schools in the West Bank as punishment for a few incidents of violence in a few isolated schools in unprecedented in world history," Nielson wrote in a statement inserted in the congressional record. "Children have now been deprived of nearly two years of education. In the past Congress has spoken out against the use of food as a weapon and it is time we speak out against the withholding of education as a weapon as well.
"The irony of it all is that violence has actually increased as a result of the school closures. The number of children who have been killed or who have been injured has risen dramatically."
"The Israelis have said that these schools have become 'centers for violence'. . .But the Israelis have gone much further that closing the schools. . .Provision of education, even in private homes, has been made a crime for which teachers can be sentenced to 10 years in prison."
Clearly, at least some forward-looking members of Congress no longer view Israeli government actions as being above reproach. Perhaps the United States can look forward someday to serving as a truly evenhanded mediator in the search for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dennis J. Wamsted is a free-lance writer specializing in the US Congress and Middle Eastern affairs.