Congress again moves toward assistance for PLO

WASHINGTON — For the second time in as many months, Congress has moved toward extending for 45 days legislation that allows U.S. financial aid to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The House of Representatives passed the measure last week before adjourning for its summer recess. The Senate is expected to act before it leaves this week or next.

With many lawmakers already on vacation and senators preparing to leave, Congress has run out of time to consider a new version of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act that would extend PLO aid for an even longer period.

A new piece of legislation will now have to wait until September.

The measure, first passed after the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO in 1993, waives previous laws that prevent U.S. contact with — and assistance to — the PLO.

Without another extension before Aug. 15, U.S. diplomats could not meet with Palestinian Authority officials, the PLO office in Washington would have to close and no U.S. money could flow to the self-rule areas of Gaza and Jericho.

Against this backdrop, all eyes were initially focused last week on the State Department Authorization Bill in the Senate as the vehicle for the legislation.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who had introduced a new version of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act along with Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), included the measure as an amendment to the broader legislation being debated last week.

However, Helms was forced to pull the entire legislation off the floor when Republicans could not muster support for a technical vote that would cut off debate on the authorization bill.

Most Democrats objected to provisions in the legislation that would fold three foreign-policy agencies, including the Agency for International Development, into the State Department.

The Helms proposal for MEPFA, which tightens some provisions of previous legislation regarding aid to the PLO but essentially enables continued aid, drew widespread support in the Jewish community.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week announced a "strong consensus" among its 50 national agencies to support the legislation.

"We believe that this version strengthens the compliance provision of the original legislation that set the requirements for U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority," Leon Levy, chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman, said in a statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, also supports the Helms bill, which gives the PLO until after Palestinian elections to change its national covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.

A few groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, however, have called for tougher legislation.

But both opponents and proponents of aid to the PLO are supporting the 45-day extension.

Robert Pelletreau, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, strongly urged Congress to approve a short-term extension of the legislation.

"A lapse of authority under the act would be especially detrimental at this critical time," Pelletreau told the House International Relations Committee last week.