Histrionics over peace process mark Palestinian aid hearing

WASHINGTON D.C. — Middle East peace process opponents outnumbered supporters at an explosive congressional hearing last week that at least one activist said signaled a "sad day" for American Jewry.

For a marathon five hours on Sept. 20, members of the House International Relations Committee heard testimony as officials of Jewish organizations offered conflicting views of peace-process issues.

Almost all 19 witnesses, including five Jewish members of Congress, focused on the polarizing issue of aid to the Palestinians. The United States has pledged $500 million over five years to the Palestinians.

The legislation that allows the money to flow, the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, expires at the end of the month but will likely receive a 12-month extension.

Although it is not clear what effect the hearing will have on the ultimate legislation, the lawmakers heard the following on the subject:

The Zionist Organization of America called for an immediate cutoff of aid. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America asked the panel to hold the money for six months in escrow to ensure that the Palestinians were complying with their accords. And the American Zionist Movement and the American Jewish Committee backed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's call for Congress to pass the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act.

Senior Israeli and AIPAC officials had unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade committee Chairman Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) from holding the hearings for fear that the anti-Israeli government testimony would negatively impact the peace process.

But the hearings went on. Before any members of the Jewish community spoke, however, one committee member chided the whole lot for bringing domestic Israeli political disputes to the halls of Congress.

"I am disgusted by the attempts by opposition parties in Israel to manipulate the sincere concerns of many American Jews to further their own political agenda," said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), an African-American congressman long considered a strong friend of Israel.

Hastings said he had more faith in Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's political judgement about making peace with the Palestinians than "I do with many of the persons who stop by my office to complain about the process."

These hearings are being held "because partisan Israeli political pressures are spilling over into the United States' political agenda," Hastings added, referring to widespread attempts by Israeli political figures from Likud to persuade Congress on a number of issues, including blocking aid to the Palestinians.

At the end of the day, many Jewish observers who watched the hearing said members of Congress probably left the hearing room more confused about where the Jewish community stands.

"This is a sad day," said Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement.

Referring to the issue of aid to the Palestinians, he said, "For the first time I've seen prominent organizations of the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish Organizations] testifying before Congress on a position contrary to that of the conference."

Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents, was referring to the stances set forth by the ZOA and the Orthodox Union.

The Conference of Presidents has supported aid to the Palestinians and expressed support for the current legislation making its way through Congress.

"This egregious breach is troubling and may have long-range negative implications for the community," Reich said.

But Morton Klein, ZOA president, saw it differently.

"The hearing was a victory for those who believe that in fact and deed Yasser Arafat is not complying with his agreements with Israel," said Klein, who has been in the forefront of lobbying activity against aid to the Palestinians.

Opponents of the aid tried to show how Arafat, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, has failed to live up to his agreements.

Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) agreed to show tapes of Arafat making speeches that were inconsistent with his pledge to end hateful rhetoric. However as time ran out on his testimony, Deutsch only played a 15-second excerpt of a tape that did not include any of the fiery statements contained in other portions of Arafat speeches. Thus members of the committee never saw Arafat calling for a jihad, or holy war, for Jerusalem. But Deutsch provided a transcript of the full tapes for the committee.

The hearing offered many odd moments, including when Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), citing a recent AJCommittee poll showing that 63 percent of American Jews do not favor aid to the Palestinians, told AIPAC executive director Neal Sher, "The vast majority of Jewish American don't agree with you."

Another unusual moment came when Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said he was puzzled why Arafat goes to the trouble of maintaining "eight days" of stubble. "Why doesn't he just grow it out?" he asked James Zogby, Arab American Institute president.

Some are puzzled by the public split among Jewish organization. Richard Hellman, president of the Christians' Israel Public Action Campaign, queried Klein and Sher during a brief recess: "Why can't you guys in the Jewish community just get along?"