WASHINGTON — As House and Senate negotiators prepare to hammer out a final version of a bill designed to isolate Hamas and to prevent American dollars from strengthening the Palestinian terrorist organization, Jewish groups are lining up on opposite sides of the fight.
Jewish organizations are making one last lobbying push as members of both chambers of Congress are set to meet in a conference committee to reconcile two versions of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. Several groups, including the Orthodox Union and the Zionist Organization of America, are supporting the tougher version, which the House of Representatives adopted May 23. On the other side, several groups, including the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, are supporting the Senate version that was passed June 23, which provides the Bush administration more room to engage with Palestinian moderates.
The bicameral conference committee — typically composed of Senate and House leaders and members of relevant congressional committees — is expected to convene in mid-July, when legislators return from their weeklong July 4 break. Jewish groups on both sides of the debate are promising to lobby the committee in an ultimate effort to shape the final version of the bill.
The House version was initiated, strongly supported and — according to congressional insiders — drafted by the by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Despite Aipac’s reputation as the strongest pro-Israel force in Washington, the committee failed to prevent liberal organizations from watering down some of the toughest language — language that makes it difficult for the administration to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians, blurring the distinction between Hamas and moderate Palestinian leaders, and posing a high threshold for Hamas to become an acceptable interlocutor. The softened albeit still tough bill passed the House 361-37.
Liberal Jewish groups carried their fight to the Senate. There, two staffers for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana and the committee’s ranking minority member, Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware, crafted a significantly different bill that ended up being endorsed by both Aipac and the left-leaning groups.
According to Aipac sources, during the conference committee the organization does not intend to weigh in on specific language. Instead, the sources said, it intends to push for prompt congressional action.
The measure passed in the Senate last week after John Sununu, New Hampshire Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, lifted a hold that he had put on the bill, congressional insiders said. Sununu reportedly objected to a section that conditioned American engagement with a Hamas government on its recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — a demand that neither Israel nor the international community has ever made as a condition for engaging with Arab interlocutors. Sununu reportedly agreed to allow a vote on the Senate floor after staffers changed the bill’s language from “recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” to “acknowledge the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist.”
Congressional sources, as well as Jewish activists, predicted that the recent hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis would make it easier for hard-liners to push the tougher provisions in the House version.
There was some speculation that the possible formation of a Hamas-Fatah “national unity” government in the Palestinian Authority could complicate the efforts of the congressional conferees to make a distinction between the two movements; however, staffers in both chambers said, there is a consensus among legislators that any government including a significant Hamas component — certainly one that is dominated by the Islamic fundamentalist faction — would have to prove collectively that it has fulfilled the conditions for becoming a true partner.