Robert K. Lifton is chairman of the Israel Policy Forum and immediate past president of the American Jewish Congress. He is also chairman of Medis El, an Israeli-based company, and The New Middle East Consortium.
Sending American financial aid to Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority has, in the United States, become the most controversial aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The argument pits those who see Arafat as an unregenerate terrorist against those who see him as the only Palestinian leader with whom the Israelis can make peace. The following debate reflects these two points of view.
But why, given that the issue is aid to the Palestinians, and not to Israel, did the Middle East Quarterly invite two prominent Jewish leaders to debate this issue, and not two Arab ones? Because Jewish groups dominate the debate in Congress and in the media: figures such as Robert Lifton and Morton Klein and not their Arab counterparts, will in the end most influence whether official U.S. funds go to the PA. And so we have asked each to present his best case.
--- The Editors
The U.S. Congress is considering the renewal of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act (MEPFA), legislation that allows the U.S. government to provide financial aid to Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza and the West Bank. Subject to the passage of MEPFA, the Clinton administration has committed some $500 million of various forms of aid over five years. Congress must now decide whether the act should pass and, if so, what conditions to aid it should contain.
I believe the U.S. government should aid the PA, and for four reasons. (1) It is in U.S. interests that Israel resolve its conflict with the Palestinians; (2) this can happen only if in connection with an agreement between Israel and Arafat, the PA can successfully govern and improve the lives of the Palestinian people; (3) this in turn requires financial and other support from foreign governments; and (4) Washington must take the lead, or other states will not contribute the needed funds, thereby dooming Arafat and the PA to failure. Such a failure would strengthen forces opposing peace with Israel, undermining U.S. interests in the region. By the same token, it is essential that MEPFA not be burdened with unnecessary and unrealistic conditions, which would effectively block the aid.
I. AMERICA NEEDS AN ARAB-ISRAELI PEACE
U.S. policy in the Middle East is founded on two interrelated objectives: maintaining regional stability and ensuring the availability of oil at affordable prices. Perhaps more than ever, these interests are now challenged by countries in the region.
Consider the problems. Saddam Husayn, who has a proven record of trying to control the Persian Gulf's oil, still reigns supreme, while his son `Uday, who may be even more adventurous, is gaining power. The Iranian regime sees the United States as the "great Satan" and supports terrorism around the world, including in the United States. Syria uses its leverage over Hizbullah and other terrorist groups to force its will in the region. Iraq and Iran--and, to a lesser extent, Syria--are actively trying to develop nuclear and other nonconventional weaponry.
These states also use the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians -- a source of continuing angst among the broad Arab public -- to stir up emotions and unleash forces to overturn existing governments, and so to extend their power over the Middle East's oil-rich countries. Settlement of that conflict reduces the political appeal of the rogue states. It provides greater leeway for the leaders of the moderate states in the region to ally more closely with the United States. And, ultimately, it may allow for the creation of new effective alignments that include Israel.
U.S. leaders have long recognized a confluence of interests with Israel in thwarting the aims of these rogue states. Israel, a solidly entrenched democracy and a country sharing American values, alone can be counted on to support American policy and interests in the region. Apart from geopolitical ties, domestic American politics binds the United States closely to Israel and requires support for Israel in case of a threat to the latter's existence. Therefore, it is in the interest of the United States that Israel continue to be safe and secure.
To maintain its security and be free to face the existential threat of extremist fundamentalism, Israel must make peace with its Arab neighbors. The road to peace with them and with the Arab world at large requires resolution of the Palestinian issue, a continuing source of irritation to Arabs that foments anger and hatred against Israel. At the same time, Israel would be stronger and more secure if it could be free from having to maintain control over an antagonistic indigenous population.
II. PALESTINIANS MUST BENEFIT FROM PEACE
Israel needs a lasting peace with the Palestinians if it is to make peace with its Arab neighbors, reduce its burdensome responsibilities as an occupier, and achieve maximum security. This means working with Yasir Arafat. After years of trying to find an alternative to dealing with Arafat and the PLO, Israeli leaders finally recognized in 1993 that there is no other way. No other Palestinian leader has the credibility to bring the conflict to a halt. Indeed, the several agreements Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has reached with the PLO and the PA finally provide Israel with an opportunity to resolve the Palestinian problem.
But extremist Palestinian groups, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, seek to destroy the peace process and undermine Arafat's government, hoping that they can then continue the war with Israel and eventually destroy the Jewish state. Using terror as a weapon, they stop at nothing to achieve their objective.
For Arafat to defeat these fundamentalist groups and retain Palestinian support, he must palpably better Palestinians' lives by improving their standard of living. That means rebuilding the rotted physical infrastructure (particularly in Gaza), creating jobs, and reducing the very high unemployment, especially among youth. Arafat must also provide facilities for education and generally give Palestinians the opportunity to win some of the benefits Israelis enjoy. His failure to achieve such results would play directly into the hands of extremists, for hungry, unemployed people are prey for those extremists who declare that peace with Israel is worthless and the struggle should continue without end. Suicidal terrorists come from the ranks of these disaffected Palestinians, and their handiwork creates antagonism among Israelis against the Palestinians, leading to a vicious cycle of anger, retaliation, and more terror.
III. THE NEED FOR FOREIGN SUPPORT
The effort to improve living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank cannot succeed without outside help. The PA cannot pull itself up by its bootstraps to achieve economic success: poverty, deterioration of infrastructure, unemployment, lack of industry, and too few taxable enterprises make this impossible. A visit to Gaza, with its miserable housing, open sewers, and terrible living conditions, makes obvious the need for massive outside financing to create a base for employment and improved living conditions. Only with these improvements can Palestinians use their business and administrative experience, plus their talents, to build their economy.
Such financing can come from within the region, primarily from the Persian Gulf oil exporters, and from wealthy countries around the globe with an interest in promoting Middle Eastern peace.
IV. THE NEED FOR AMERICAN AID
Galvanizing international financial support requires that the U.S. government take the leading role, both in giving its own money and in raising funds from others. Only the United States has the credibility and capability to provide such leadership. Without such effort, the necessary support will simply not be forthcoming. Arafat will be unable to improve Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians will be prompted to turn to the extremist groups, particularly Hamas, in part because these organizations will offer financial support, and in part because they will hold out the prospect of bringing about radical change. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will escalate terror and work with rogue states to generate Arab antagonism to Israel, thereby pressuring Arab and other governments to cut ties with Israel. This will weaken and isolate Israel and return it to the kind of pariah-state status it had before the Rabin administration held out real prospects for a successful peace process in 1992. This in turn creates more threats to Israel's security and places more strain on its economy, forcing Washington to carry more of the burden in the Middle East.
The $500 million of total American aid committed to the Palestinians over five years represents just 23 percent of the total international commitment. Of that amount, however, only some $400 million is to be funded, with the rest to come in the form of Overseas Private Investment Corporation guarantees to U.S. businesses. So far, the United States has expended only $130.5 million -- a small price to pay to avoid the incomparably more costly and potentially dangerous consequences of a failed peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
CONDITIONING AID IS UNNECESSARY AND DESTRUCTIVE
Many opponents of the peace process in Israel and the United States do not reject outright U.S. aid to the PA. Rather, more subtly, they argue that aid should be conditioned on Arafat's and the PA's meeting certain requirements. These usually consist of four elements: the PLO's revoking those parts of its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel; Arafat's demonstrating that he is not working in cahoots with Hamas; his ceasing all anti-Israel rhetoric; and his providing transparency and accountability for the funds he receives.
On a superficial level, these conditions appear reasonable, but closer analysis reveals that they are not appropriate at this time. They needlessly slow down the peace process, are impossible for Arafat to satisfy at present, or are unnecessary for the protection of Israeli or U.S. interests.
Revocation of the covenant. It is clear that the PLO must revoke its odious covenant. At present, however, it is divided over supporting Arafat and moving forward with the peace process. Today, Arafat cannot pull together a quorum of the PLO that would revoke the offensive elements. The recently signed Taba accord requires that the covenant be revoked within two months after the election of a new council by the Palestinians. And the Israelis have effectively hinged their own actions on such a revocation. This is a realistic requirement. Because it links Israel's forward movement to Arafat's near-term performance, the new democratically elected council will truly represent the Palestinian people in the territories and may effectively replace the PLO or compel it to comply with the commitment to revoke. This agreement should satisfy those concerned about revocation but at the same time allow for timely financial aid by the United States and other countries.
Rejection of Hamas. Arafat has in fact rejected Hamas, and the best proof of it is already at hand in his public condemnation of all the recent suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. More important, Arafat shows that he at last understands that Hamas is as much a challenge to his authority as it is to Israel. Accordingly, he has joined with the Israeli security forces to defeat the terrorists. While a number of instances of successful intervention have not been made public, it is clear that Israel's ability, just after the August 1995 attack in Jerusalem, to capture a large number of terrorists with some of their leaders results from cooperation with the Palestinian forces. Shortly thereafter, the Israelis announced that they had helped the Palestinian security forces uncover a cell of extremists in Gaza who were planning attacks on PA figures.
Arafat's crackdown on Hamas has helped ease Prime Minister Rabin's doubts about the Palestinian leader. Earlier, Rabin openly expressed concern that Arafat was not doing as much as he could to take on Hamas. Rabin, who has a professional knowledge about security, has finally decided that the best hope for Israeli security is through cooperation with Arafat. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, he stated in September 1995 that the Israeli leadership "reached the fundamental conclusion that [Arafat] is our partner and that with the Palestinians, the choice is between the PLO, which accepts Arafat's authority, or radical Islam. There is no third option."1 Indeed, this conclusion has made possible the second-stage agreement to expand PA autonomy in the West Bank.
Cutting out the anti-Israel rhetoric. Opponents of the peace process have publicized transcripts of a taped speech delivered by Arafat to Palestinians on June 19, 1995, in which Arafat proclaimed, "We will go on with the jihad, a long jihad, a difficult jihad, an exhausting jihad, martyrs, battles."2 We do not know whether Arafat is telling the truth when he claims that he was not using jihad here to refer to a military conflict, but that is not important: what counts is the reality of his actions, not what he is saying. And what he is doing is helping Israel defeat the terrorist groups. To tie aid to the meaning of his ambiguous statements is to get caught up in irrelevancy.
Accountability and transparency. The attempt to write into legislation enabling the U.S. government to provide aid to the PA that such funds can only be used under conditions of accountability and transparency creates needless complications in defining those terms. U.S. officials administrating the use of funds already consider themselves bound by U.S. law and have consistently refused to provide funds unless they are disbursed in ways that satisfy accountability and transparency. This is also true of officials of the World Bank and most of the other donor states. In connection with some of the major projects in Gaza (the airport, the water and sewerage systems, and the peripheral road), Arafat explicitly agreed that the donors can pay funds directly to the companies chosen by bidding process or by the donor country to carry out the project, completely bypassing Arafat and his colleagues. It is only when funds have come from sources that do not insist on accountability and transparency (for example, at least some Arab states) that Arafat has used the money for political purposes unconnected with economic development.
To be sure, not everyone concerned about aid is opposed to the peace process; but it is clear that the attempt to saddle MEPFA with these conditions is little more than a last-ditch effort to stop U.S. aid to the PA. Those Americans who support Israeli efforts to make peace but are sincerely troubled by Arafat's words and his past inaction can take heart: aid funds are to be paid out over a period of five years, so the United States have every opportunity to test Arafat's promises against his performance. In particular, Washington can monitor the PA's actions and stop the flow of funds at any point at which the PA fails to live up to its commitments.
Weighing all the benefits of aid to the PA against the risks, and taking into account U.S. flexibility to control levels of aid, the case for U.S. aid is overwhelming.
Congressional Legislation for Palestinian Economic Assistance
By Ross Kaplan
Prior to 1993, U.S. government aid to the Palestinians was limited to what was funneled through private voluntary organizations (PVOs) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Funding via PVOs started in 1975 and averaged $9.2 million annually; it supported various charitable projects. UNRWA was established in 1949 and currently provides services to 3 million registered Palestinian refugees; its funding has averaged $38.3 million annually.
Following Arafat's renunciation of violence in Geneva on December 14, 1988, Congress passed the PLO Commitments Compliance Act, permitting American officials tgo negotiate with the PLO. Congress regularly evaluates the PLO's compliance with those commitments and also those Arafat made on September 9, 1993. The act requires the president to report on PLO actions against opposition groups, the Covenant, the boycott, the PLO peace strategy, and the names of terror groups engaged against Israel.
The Middle East Peace Facilitation Act (MEPFA) of 1993 authorizes the president to waive four sections of law that prohibit or limit U.S. relations with or assistance for the Palestinians. It requires the president to certify to Congress that the PLO is abiding by its commitments in the PLO-Israel agreements, and that such waiver is in the national interest. A bill passed on August 23, 1994, amends the MEPFA with the condition that the PLO must remove the Covenant references calling for the elimination of Israel; it also states Congress's expectation that the PLO will work to end the Arab boycott of Israel. The authority for the president to waive existing sections of law prohibiting contact with the PLO is expected to be extended for eighteen months with the passage of the foreign appropriations bill, which comprises MEPFA.
Ross Kaplan is a consultant dealing with Middle Eastern issues.
1 The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 24, 1995, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: Near East and South Asia, Sept. 25, 1995.
2 Qol Yisra'el, Aug. 10, 1995.