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Israelis Want Aipac-Backed Bill Softened

WASHINGTON — Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza could be hurt by a bill being pressed by the pro-Israel lobby that would restrict American assistance to the Palestinians, several Israeli officials and representatives of international aid organizations told the Forward.

In an attempt to isolate any Palestinian government led by the terrorist organization Hamas, pro-Israel activists are backing a bill — the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 — that bans all non-humanitarian American assistance to the Palestinian Authority and prohibits official American contacts with the P.A. unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism. Thousands of lobbyists with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee flooded Capitol Hill Tuesday, holding almost 500 meetings with legislators and their staff, in which they urged members of Congress to endorse the bill.

But Israeli officials told the Forward that it could be a serious mistake to pass the bill before a Palestinian government has been formed and before the March 28 Israeli elections. They argued that at this point the bill could end up limiting the diplomatic flexibility of the new Israeli government in dealings with the new P.A. regime. In addition, Israeli officials said, the bill may place the onus of providing for the wellbeing of the Palestinian population on Israel, the occupying power in the territories. The bill could also result in the cancellation of several internationally funded aid programs in which Israel has a vital interest, in fields such as public health, water and sewage.

“Israel has not decided what to do yet. An elected government will have to do that,” said an Israel official who attended Aipac’s annual policy conference this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s really too early to make such decisions,” the official said. “Israel, the U.S., the international community all need to wait and see what Hamas does and how things play out, and then decide if to engage with the Palestinian government and on what level.”

Rather than openly oppose the efforts of their allies in Washington, however, Israeli officials are operating under the assumption that the Bush administration, along with some lawmakers, will work to scale back some of the proposed restrictions.

In the first sign of such softening, the Senate version of the bill, introduced Tuesday by Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell and Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, makes a distinction between Hamas and the P.A., allowing interaction with non-Hamas members of the Palestinian government. It also makes some of the sanctions on the P.A. discretionary rather than mandatory.

Gidi Greenstein, director of the Israeli think tank Reut and a former adviser to Labor prime minister Ehud Barak, was more outspoken. “We are at a moment of tremendous change,” Greenstein told a crowd at the Aipac conference, in response to a question on whether the legislation serves Israel’s interests. “Things change from one minute to another, which is why every side needs to maintain maximum flexibility. Of all the tools that a government has, legislation is the most rigid, and there needs to be a way for a government to respond to a constantly changing reality.”

The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives last month and in the Senate on Tuesday, sets tougher benchmarks for engaging with a Hamas-led Palestinian government than the ones set by Israel’s transitional government.

It calls for the president to certify that a set of conditions are met before federal money can be appropriated to the P.A. Those include institutional changes such as the promotion of peaceful coexistence in Palestinian media and textbooks. Another condition for engaging with a Hamas-led government is that the Palestinian government recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, a demand never posed by Israel or the international community to the Palestine Liberation Organization, Egypt or Jordan when they signed peace agreements with Israel.

The bill is not the only area where Aipac seems to be taking a harder line than Israel on future relations with the Palestinians. At Aipac’s conference this week, the organization’s director for legislative strategy and policy, Ester Kurz, participated in a panel discussion on the question of whether to dismantle the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. body that provides services to Palestinian refugees.

Panel participants, including Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, accused Unrwa of being bloated, corrupt, anachronistic and acquiescing to anti-Israeli violence. Despite such criticisms, Israel opposes dismantling the U.N. agency — a point acknowledged by Kurz during the session. She said that Israel does not want to see the U.N. agency dissolved out of fear that Jerusalem would end up inheriting the responsibility for the welfare of about 1.5 million refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

Aipac leaders say that no daylight exists between the organization and Israel on the strategy toward the P.A. Asked by the Forward if Aipac was lobbying for an agenda that does not reflect Israel’s interests, a former president and board member, Melvin Dow, said: “I don’t think there is any incompatibility between the interests of the United States and the interests of Israel.… I think we all share common interests.”

Israeli officials said that Israel has coordinated its positions on Hamas and the P.A. with Aipac, but could not say whether Israel had consulted regarding specific provisions of the bill. The measure, according to several congressional staffers who followed its development, was drafted with the active involvement of Aipac’s staff. Israeli officials would not say whether they suggested to Aipac that the bill be softened.

Regardless of the bill, most projects funded by the American government in the West Bank and Gaza have already been frozen. According to executives with non-governmental organizations that are contracted by the American government to carry out projects in the West Bank and Gaza, all initiatives that require interaction with representatives of the Palestinian government have been put on hold. The executives said that the United States Agency for International Development is conducting a thorough reassessment of its programs in the territories and wants all potentially problematic ones frozen during the review. Also, in anticipation of the formation of a Hamas-led Palestinian government, the American agency does not want to put NGO workers in a legally problematic position of dealing with members of a terrorist organization and does not want to be seen as assisting or cooperating with one.

Conversations with several officials with American NGOs indicate that the distinction made by the proposed Aipac-backed legislation between humanitarian aid that is permitted and assistance for economic development or infrastructure that is forbidden is not always clear. “NGOs are very much in the dark as to what will and what will not be funded,” said Theodore Kattouf, president of America Mideast Educational and Training Services, an organization that is mainly involved in education and training.

America’s aid money to the territories is funneled through the USAid, a federal body responsible for the disbursement of most non-military foreign aid worldwide. The agency’s budget for the West Bank and Gaza for 2006 is $150 million. More than half of that amount is slated for economic growth projects, which the administration has signaled will be suspended once a Hamas government takes office.

The administration’s position and the proposed congressional legislation both allow for humanitarian aid to continue, as long as the assistance does not go through a Hamas-led government. The problem is, according to officials familiar with the delivery of such aid, that almost any aid project requires dealing with Palestinian government officials, on one level or another, and almost any project relies on Palestinian government institutions to deliver the aid. As it turns out, a good deal of the billions in foreign-aid dollars sent to the territories from the international community, including the United States, have been invested in recent years in enhancing these P.A. institutions.

For the most part, USAid contracts charitable and other non-governmental organizations, which typically interact with Palestinian organizations or sub-contractors, and with the Palestinian government. USAid has frozen all projects that involve contact with the P.A., which account for about 80% of all the projects in the territories funded by the agency, according to officials with the NGOs in question.

One example, according to Peter Gubser, president of the American Near East Refugee Aid, is a USAid-funded program to rebuild, train and improve well-baby care clinics in the territories. “We were told [by USAid] to drop the government clinics and move to NGO and Unrwa clinics,” Gubser said.

Most clinics in rural Palestinian communities are P.A.-run, which means that the majority of Palestinian newborns and their mothers in more than 500 villages in the West Bank won’t have easy access to such clinics.

Another example is a new USAid-funded project to prevent avian flu, which involves cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli scientists. “We have been working on doing some prevention and detection. That is also now on hold,” said Liz Sime, West Bank and Gaza director at Care, a charitable organization fighting poverty worldwide that has signed a two-year contract with USAid to deliver services in the territories costing $10 million.

The anti-flu project cannot proceed because it necessitates contacts with Palestinian health ministry officials, Sime said in a phone interview from her office in East Jerusalem. “You can’t do proper surveillance without working through an official national body,” Sime said, adding that Israeli public health officials “have communicated their concern” to Care over the freezing of this project.

Representatives of NGOs that contract with USAid have recently met at least twice with senior State Department officials to discuss ways to continue their projects, the Forward has learned. In both meetings, NGO representatives told administration officials that almost any type of assistance project to the Palestinian population — whether humanitarian or not — involves interacting on some level with Palestinian government officials.

Sources familiar with the meetings said that while the administration promised that the American government would not go after NGO staffers who deal with P.A. officials affiliated with Hamas in the course of delivering humanitarian aid, administration officials pointed out that “third parties” might try to take legal action against them.

NGO representatives will ask the administration, the Forward has learned, to issue a legal opinion making a distinction between P.A. politicians affiliated with Hamas and P.A. workers, or “civil servants,” with whom working-level contacts could be permissible. But legal advisers have warned NGO executives that this approach could not be legally sustained if the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 is passed.

Aipac spokesmen say that passing the legislation sooner rather than later is important in order to send a strong message to Hamas and to the international community. They also argue that it is important to set clear markers for America’s policy before the resolve in Washington to isolate Hamas erodes. Larry Garber, the former USAid mission director in the West Bank and Gaza and current executive director of the New Israel Fund, said that Aipac’s push for the legislation could in practice preempt not only the administration but the Israeli government as well.

“It’s not smart to push in an unequivocal way yet,” he said. “It really would be useful to ask Aipac: ‘Do you really want people to be going up to the Hill [urging members of Congress] to support that legislation when the administration has not yet come up with a policy and the Israelis have not come up with a policy yet?’”

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