WASHINGTON — A SPIRITED congressional debate has erupted over aid to Palestinians, highlighting divisions within the normally unified pro-Israeli lobby.
Most of Israel's supporters in the United States, reflecting the views of Israel's Labor government, say continued US aid to Palestinians is needed to give peace a chance in the Middle East. But that persuasion is being challenged by a number of conservative Jewish groups, which are mounting an aggressive campaign to eliminate or impose tight - critics say prohibitive - restrictions on future US assistance.
The animus behind this unusual counterlobby is the conviction that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is a terrorist organization that has failed to fully meet a peace agreement signed with Israel two years ago. It has produced mixed signals from a community long accustomed to speaking with one voice.
"In the past there have been left-right divisions [within the pro-Israeli lobby] but there's never been this kind of sustained campaign by a counterlobby," says an official of one major US Jewish organization. "At times, this muddles the message to Congress from our community."
Congress has been generous to other participants in the Middle East peace process. It annually appropriates $3 billion a year to Israel and $2 billion a year to Egypt, and forgave a $700 million debt owed by Jordan after it made peace with Israel. But lawmakers have been more parsimonious with the PLO, which just last month signed a new agreement with Israel extending Palestinian self-rule to the West Bank.
At issue is the extension of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which permits the PLO to maintain a diplomatic presence in Washington and receive additional installments of a five year, $500 million aid package approved last year.
The act expired July 1 but has been extended until Nov. 1. An amendment calling for a full year's extension was added to a Senate appropriations bill. A number of lawmakers are seeking to add conditions that would tie future aid to stricter compliance with the terms of the PLO's peace agreement with Israel.
The lobby to cut or restrict US aid is being led by Jewish organizations, including Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel, whose views largely coincide with those of the opposition Likud Party in Israel.
Their efforts have drawn a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who said last month that American Jews have "no moral right" to lobby in the US against the policies of an elected Israeli government.
IN addition to what they say is the diversion of US aid money, conservative groups point to the failure of the PLO to confiscate Palestinian arms, to stem terrorist attacks against Israel by the radical Hamas movement, and to delete language from the charter of the PLO legislature calling for Israel's destruction.
"We want the PLO to know that if we're going to keep our part of the bargain [by providing more aid to the PLO] they have to keep theirs," says Rep. Jim Saxton (R) of New Jersey.
Mainstream Jewish groups acknowledge that Arafat's performance has fallen short of his commitments, but say such failures have to be viewed in context of a trendline that is running in the right direction.
"If you're looking for full compliance, it's not there," says the official. "But if you're paying attention to improvement, it's impressive.
Demanding instant compliance is unrealistic, adds the official, and could force Congress to cut funding for economic development in the West Bank and Gaza. He says "Improving the lives of Palestinians is part of the process; it demonstrates that there's something in the peace process for them."
Cutting funds could also weaken moderates and strengthen radicals in the Palestinian camp and thus have the reverse effect of increasing terrorism, the official adds.
Paradoxically, the debate over funding comes amid reports that Hamas is ready to cooperate with the PLO by suspending terrorist attacks against Israel.
According to The Washington Post, Arafat has demanded Hamas end its war against Israel in return for a promise to release Hamas prisoners and permit Hamas to hold seats in a new Palestinian legislature.
Any firm concession would reflect Hamas's diminishing strength and could buttress the argument for sustaining aid to the Palestinians.