An AIPAC Shot Across Baker’s Bow?

Just after the Iraq Study Group (ISG) launched its long-awaited report, with its call for a “renewed and sustained commitment by the United States for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace,” the House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. Why did the House pass the Senate bill? What is its significance for US policy? What are the implications of the ISG report?

What Israel’s House Supporters Wanted – and What They Got

On 7 December 2006, the day before the 109th Congress ended its term, the House rushed to pass the Senate version of the Palestinian Anti Terrorism Act (S2370), suspending the rules to do so by voice vote. The House had initially passed its own bill sanctioning the Palestinians – HR4681 – in May (the Senate’s passed in June). However, the House and Senate bills were not reconciled by year-end. The House faced the choice of passing the much milder Senate version and sending that to President George Bush for his signature, or not having a bill at all. As one of the Act’s supporters Tom Lantos (D-CA), put it, “It was the best we could do.” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who has the distinction of introducing the largest number of pro-Israeli bills in the House during the 109th Congress, gave notice that this was only the beginning “of our efforts to deny Hamas…the economic resources, the political legitimacy and the excuses to pursue their threatening agenda.” [1]

If the pro-Israeli supporters in the House had had their way, all links between the US Administration and the Palestinian Authority would have effectively ended, including with its non-Hamas members, and Palestine Liberation Organization offices in the US would have been shut. The original House bill also targeted United Nations programs supporting the Palestinians. By contrast, S2370 focuses its sanctions on the Hamas leadership of the PA rather than the PA itself. It also allows for more humanitarian relief; does not sanction non-Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council; and gives the president some room for maneuver to support the PA president and the judiciary if he believes it is in the national interest. [2] In fact, the Senate version is not too different from US Administration policy, as Ros-Lehtinen admitted.

So why did the House vote for the Senate version? Partly to enable Israel’s supporters to save face, given that AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) strongly supported sanctioning the Palestinians. [3] Perhaps more importantly, there is now the prospect of unprecedented debate around the need for a different approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict with the release of the ISG report. In addition, the ISG report calls for talks on Iraq with Syria and Iran – the latter has just pledged to give $250 million to the Hamas-led PA in 2007. The rush by the House to adopt S2370 can be seen in light of the determination of Israel’s supporters to limit the framework of debate on this conflict and maintain the siege on the Palestinians. The battle lines are being drawn.

Current US Policy Vs. the ISG Approach

US Administration policy towards the Palestinians is hardly even-handed, and includes:

– The US works with the other Quartet members (the UN, Russia, and the European Union), to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel, recognize past peace agreements, and renounce violence. The unilateral nature of these demands ensures that Hamas cannot meet them. Thus, the international community is effectively supporting Israel’s military and economic siege of the Palestinians. – The US suspended its own foreign assistance program in the West Bank and Gaza, with the exception of some emergency relief, after the formation of the Hamas-led government. – Despite frequent references by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to a viable Palestinian state, they are unwilling to get Israel to deliver on any of its commitments – even those made to the US such as lifting restrictions on movement in Gaza and removing illegal outposts in the West Bank. – Bush’s exchange of letters with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2004 was widely interpreted as giving Israel a green light to annex major settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and rule out the Palestinian right of return.

Former Secretary of State James Baker and the rest of the ISG want a very different approach: a return to negotiations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, and between Israel and the Palestinians. They couch their recommendations in terms of strong support for Israel, but the bottom line is clear: land for peace. Israel must return the Golan Heights to Syria and cede the occupied Palestinian territories in exchange for peace. The ISG report

– Supports a Palestinian unity government, without mentioning the Quartet’s three conditions, saying simply that Palestinians involved in talks must “accept” or “acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.” – Reinforces the reciprocal nature of the ceasefire reached between Israel and the Palestinians in November 2006, one of the rare occasions that Israel has reciprocated a Palestinian ceasefire. – Refers to the Palestinian “right of return” rather than to “refugees,” a phrase that has already raised Israel’s hackles.

While the report may not change US policy towards Iraq or the Israeli-Arab conflict in the near future, it takes the debate about the issues in a new direction, with a different language and tone. Hence the need for pro-Israeli forces in the US to move fast and limit the debate. After all, when the unthinkable becomes thinkable, it becomes doable. Israel wants land and peace – Baker insists it can’t have both. On this issue, Bush would be well-advised to heed Baker.

NADIA HIJAB is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

Additional research by Institute staffer Brian Wood.

[1] All quotes from the Congressional Record. As of this date, Bush had not signed the bill into law. If he does not do so within 10 days of having received the bill, he will effectively have vetoed it because Congress has adjourned.

[2] For a detailed comparison of HR4681 and S2370, see the note prepared by Americans for Peace Now.

[3] JPOST 10 May 2006.