WASHINGTON, D.C. — Opponents of U.S. aid to the Palestine Liberation Organization have all but admitted defeat as Congress prepares to take up legislation allowing millions of dollars to flow to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
The measure, which would extend the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act for 18 months, has widespread support in the U.S. and Israeli administrations, in Congress and in the Jewish community.
However, at least one influential senator is threatening to hold up the legislation in the wake of Monday's terrorist attack on an Israeli bus in a suburb of Tel Aviv.
"Such behavior should not be rewarded by the U.S. Congress," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the Peace Accord Monitoring Group in the Senate, which was created to assure Palestinian compliance with the peace accords.
Speculating that Arafat's police force knew of the plans for the bombing, Specter called on Arafat to share intelligence with the Israeli government or risk losing American foreign aid.
"Before we extend the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, we must decide whether the Palestinian National Authority should be entrusted with U.S. aid if it is not fully complying with the agreements already signed to prevent terrorist acts such as the one committed today," Specter said on Monday.
But observers believe that the controversial legislation, which expired June 30 and was extended for 45 days, will ultimately pass Congress.
However, it is expected to encounter some roadblocks along the way — unrelated to aid to the PLO — as it becomes embroiled in disputes over other foreign policy-related legislation.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, has embraced the legislation as "a realistic approach," said Neal Sher, the group's executive director.
Opponents, however, are disappointed.
"I've done all that I can," said an audibly frustrated Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who has led the charge to cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority.
"With the State Department, White House, AIPAC and two governments fighting for this, there's not much we can do," Klein said, all but admitting defeat in his crusade.
But Klein remained critical of the bill for not holding the PLO to a tougher standard.
"A Mack truck could drive through the loopholes in this bill," he said.
The United States has pledged $500 million over five years to the Palestinian Authority. About $100 million has already been delivered.
The legislation is necessary because congressional action is required to waive laws that ban American diplomatic contact with the PLO and also prevent U.S. foreign assistance to the Palestinians.
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), differs from the earlier Middle East Peace Facilitation Act in that it is meant to tighten the restrictions and lead to greater compliance on the part of the PLO.
Under the new plan, as with the old, the president must certify that the PLO is complying with its accords with Israel and he must continue to submit compliance reports to Congress every six months in order for the Palestinians to receive U.S. foreign aid.
Under the new version, however, in order for the president to certify compliance, the PLO must have taken the following steps: established a judicial system, cooperated with Israel to pre-empt terrorism and disarmed civilians not licensed to carry weapons.
As for the controversial item relating to the PLO's National Covenant, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, the new legislation would not require the PLO to amend its covenant until a Palestinian Council is seated after elections in the territories.
The PLO's failure to amend its covenant, as promised under its 1993 agreement with Israel, has been a major rallying cry for opponents of aid to the PLO.
In negotiations between Israel and the PLO earlier this month, Arafat promised Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that within 60 days of the Palestinian elections, he would move to amend the covenant.
Specifics relating to Palestinian elections are among the issues currently being hammered out by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who are working to conclude an agreement that would extend Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.
The Helms-Pell legislation spells out the PLO's agreements with Israel and calls on the Palestinians to prevent acts of terrorism, take legal measures against terrorists, abstain from incitement and hostile propaganda, ban armed forces other that the Palestinian police, ban the possession or sale of weapons and extradite criminals to Israel.
Co-sponsors of the legislation include Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Although the timing of the legislation remains uncertain, the likely scenario is that in the Senate, Helms and Pell will offer the measure as an amendment to the State Department Authorization Bill as early as the end of this week.
If approved by the Senate, the House is expected to vote on the measure as part of the House-Senate conference committee's report on the State Department bill, a version of which the House has already passed.
But President Clinton has vowed to veto the State Department Authorization Bill, including the provision on the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, unless it is drastically reshaped.
In a move that has drawn the ire of the White House, the current legislation would fold three foreign policy agencies into the State Department — the Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
If Clinton vetoes the bill, Congress is expected either to pass another short-term extension to enable continuing aid to the PLO or to vote on the Helms-Pell legislation as a separate piece of law.