Lawmakers urging Washington to review Palestinian privileges

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WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are urging the Bush administration to review its diplomatic treatment of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization in light of the violent uprising against Israel.

Pro-Israel lobbying groups and lawmakers want a review of the current diplomatic privileges the Palestinian Authority and the PLO receive, including freedom of travel to the United States and a consulate in Washington.

Some lawmakers believe that if the violence continues, the PLO or Arafat could again be placed on the State Department's lists of terrorists. They were taken off the list in 1993.

The State Department is "not aware" of congressional efforts to review the Palestinians' status, a department spokesman said.

But one of the Jewish leaders who met with Colin Powell Wednesday said the secretary of state "expressed great understanding of the situation Israel is in and placed the onus on the Palestinian Authority to cease violence before peace negotiations can resume."

A spokesman from the PLO's Washington office was unavailable for comment.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to President Bush on Monday, asking him not to invite Arafat to the White House until Palestinian violence against Israel ends. He also said the White House and Congress need to reassess commitments made to the Palestinians after Arafat signed the Oslo accords with Israel in 1993.

Several bills are circulating in the House of Representatives that would cut off non-humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories and downgrade the PLO's Washington office from an "intersector" office — which has no formal ambassador but carries out most diplomatic tasks — to a mere information office.

The current diplomatic treatment of the Palestinians was revised in 1993 following the agreement signed between Israel and the PLO on the White House lawn. At that time, Palestinian groups were removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, and Arafat and other Palestinian leaders were allowed to enter the United States without restriction.

But after nearly six months of violence, lawmakers and Israeli activists want America to pressure Arafat and the Palestinians. They see the Washington perks the Palestinians have enjoyed in recent years as leverage and say the current violence shows the Palestinian disregard for the agreements worked out under the Oslo peace process. They question, therefore, whether the United States needs to continue coddling the Palestinians.

The State Department soon will release its semi-annual report on PLO compliance with its commitments to the United States. Under the Palestine Liberation Organization Commitments Compliance Act, Palestinian actions from June 16, 2000, to Dec. 15, 2000, will be reviewed.

Members of Congress have approached AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, with concerns about the current violence and have consulted about how to get their point across to the Palestinians, AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker said.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Powell are slated to speak at AIPAC's annual policy conference here next week. As part of his first visit to the United States as prime minister, Sharon also will meet with Bush.

Jewish leaders want the Bush administration to stop letting the Palestinians have it both ways. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, "They are getting the aid, but not doing anything to earn it."