Anti-Arafat backlash grows in Congress, Jewish groups

Many mainstream Jewish groups are using rhetoric usually employed only by the greatest critics of the peace process.

At the same time, frustration has mounted on Capitol Hill that the United States has yet to put its own anti-terrorism house in order.

The anti-Arafat backlash comes as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began her first Middle East mission against the backdrop of Israel's government announcing that the peace process was dead unless Arafat took immediate action against terrorists.

One organization that has been supportive of the peace process, B'nai B'rith, has called on the United States to stop all contact with the Palestinians, including CIA participation in Israeli-Palestinian security talks.

"The Palestinian Authority has become like a rogue state in a position which can be likened with those states that the United States has ceased all contact with," said Tommy Baer, president of B'nai B'rith.

"Perhaps Arafat is not the right person" to lead the Palestinians to peace, Baer said in an interview hours after last week's attack on Ben Yehuda Street, which claimed the lives of five Israelis and wounded more than 190.

That kind of language is music to the ears of Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who has led American Jewish opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, known as the Oslo Accords, signed four years ago on the White House lawn.

"There's been a significant shift of people openly stating that Arafat is the villain here and he continues to be the terrorist we hoped he was not," Klein said.

But other Jewish officials were not ready to declare that such a shift has taken place.

"We're not necessarily seeing a turn to the right," said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, formerly the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

"This is a rallying around the Israeli people at a difficult time for them."

The Jewish community is laying the groundwork for a public relations campaign to boost support for Israel in its quest for security.

But even before the Ben Yehuda street attack, it appeared that the American public was behind the Jewish state.

A recent Harris poll showed Arafat's image slipping while Netanyahu's was gaining strength in U.S. opinion.

The poll also showed that 37 percent of those surveyed believe that the Palestinians should bear most of the blame for the problems in the peace talks.

Israel was mostly to blame, according to 20 percent of the respondents.

The poll of 1,007 Americans was taken in August and released this week. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

A similar poll in March and April found 31 percent blamed the Palestinians, while 28 percent blamed Israel.

Respondents in the August survey split 41 to 40 percent on whether Netanyahu was breaking agreements with the Palestinians.

As for Arafat, 30 percent said he was complying with the accords; 55 percent said he did not.

While the American public lays some of the blame on Netanyahu's doorstep, the bipartisan leadership of Congress has conditioned the future of U.S.-Palestinian relations on Arafat's actions.

In a letter to Albright, the congressional leadership urged "in the strongest possible terms to focus on one clear message to the Palestinians: Fight terrorism and violence unceasingly and commit to the systemic and complete eradication of the terrorist infrastructure."

The letter from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) wrote Arafat that "American patience and understanding are at an end.

"Arafat and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority must live up to this solemn obligation" to fight terror "or risk an end to the relationship with, and support of, the United States of America."

U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority remains frozen. The law that allows direct aid to the authority expired last month after the State Department would not certify Palestinian compliance with the Oslo Accords.

Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to act on another front.

Fed up with the State Department's failure to create a list of terrorist groups, as required under last year's anti-terrorism law, Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced an amendment to cut the department's budget by $1 million a month until it completes such a list.

The list is a precursor to banning these groups' U.S. fund-raising.

A senior State Department official said the list will not be completed until at least October. According to this official, lawyers are working feverishly on the documentation required by the law.

Speaking in the wake of Hamas' claim of responsibility for last week's bombing in Jerusalem, Schumer said, "I find it an affront, as an American, that groups like Hamas are still allowed to fund-raise here, are allowed to bring members here."