Commentary Magazine


Not First Time Palestinian Aid Violated the Law

Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday that the Obama administration’s decision to continue funding the Palestinian Authority despite its inclusion of Hamas is a clear violation of U.S. law. He is absolutely right. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s decision, alas, was entirely predictable. In my recent book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I chronicle CIA, State Department, and White House efforts across decades to subvert U.S. law and engage with the worst, most extreme Palestinian elements.

In July 1979, for example, Andrew Young, a civil rights hero whom Carter had appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with Zehdi Terzi, the PLO’s representative at the UN. True, Young had not cleared his meeting with the State Department. Like many diplomats, he found freelancing with rogues to be cool. When the matter became public, Carter reprimanded Young, and Young resigned. He remained defiant, however, and chided U.S. refusal to talk to the PLO. That much was public. What was not aired publicly at the time, but became clear from both letters, declassified documents, and memoirs, is that Carter blamed not Young but rather the Israelis for forcing the matter to come to a head.

No doubt, Carter had a soft spot for the PLO. After Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979, Carter used the PLO as an intermediary with the hostage-takers. When the Iranian hostage-takers released black and female hostages, the State Department credited the PLO. Diplomats didn’t realize that this was a gesture the Iranians would have made anyway, because the revolutionary leadership had internalized third world propaganda on American society and wanted to show that they were supporters of ‘social justice.’ Regardless, by accepting the PLO as an intermediary, Carter and the State Department granted the PLO legitimacy at a time when it refused to abandon terrorism. Congress was less willing simply to criticize and posture, and instead moved to constrain Carter’s outreach: It opposed both the UN Special Committee on Palestinian Rights and American participation in the International Monetary Fund if the PLO joined.

Compared to Carter, Ronald Reagan was a breath of fresh air. During his campaign, Reagan swore he would not negotiate with terrorists. The State Department had come to a different conclusion. In the early 1980s, the PLO was on the ropes. Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion soundly defeated the PLO and forced its leadership into exile. The PLO remained as committed to terrorism as ever, most famously hijacking the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. The execution, reportedly on Arafat’s orders, of an elderly, wheelchair-bound American Jew reinforced the PLO’s pariah status. Rather than gear policy to undermine the weakened PLO further, the State Department engaged the group.

In one of the closest parallels to what is occurring today, U.S. diplomats in 1985 were willing to accept the fiction of a joint Jordanian-PLO delegation in order to sit down with the PLO. Arafat’s refusal to even rhetorically foreswear terrorism, however, led to the cancellation of talks. In the aftermath of the Achille Lauro hijacking, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987, which formally declared the PLO to be a terrorist organization for purposes of U.S. law, and reinforced the prohibition on U.S. dialogue with the group. This act forced the State Department to close the PLO’s offices in Washington, against American diplomats’ wishes, although the United Nations treaty protected the PLO offices in New York.

The PLO got a new lease on life with the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987. In February 1988, in the midst of almost daily violence, Mohamed Rabie, a Palestinian academic close to the PLO leadership, approached William Quandt, a Carter-era National Security Council aide and sought Quandt’s help with an introduction to NSC officials to explore U.S. interest for dialogue with the PLO. Two diplomats serving on the NSC—Robert Oakley and Dennis Ross—were happy to oblige. Talking to terrorists makes careers. In the book, I go into considerable detail into that dialogue. The PLO gained a great deal of legitimacy and that late Reagan-era dialogue actually set the stage for the full embrace of the PLO five years later.

It is one thing for the Congress to make laws in order to constrain the State Department and protect against diplomats’ worst instincts. It is another thing to enforce the law. During the Clinton administration, efforts to subvert Congress in order to keep dialogue with the PLO alive became even more nefarious.

In 1989, noting that the PLO continued its terrorism with Arafat’s cognizance, Congress passed the PLO Commitments Compliance Act (PLOCCA), which required the State Department to affirm every 120 days that the PLO was abiding by its commitment to abandon terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. If the PLO did not meet its commitments, then dialogue should cease. That happened once. On May 30, 1990, terrorists attacked a Tel Aviv beach. When Arafat refused to discipline Abul Abbas, the PLO executive committee member who planned the attack, the State Department suspended dialogue for a few weeks.

After Oslo, and after Arafat returned to Gaza, he was dismissive of commitments both to ensure security and revoke portions of the PLO’s charter that called for Israel’s destruction. Because the State Department ignored Arafat’s backpedaling, the Senate tried to rein in engagement. On July 15, 1994, the Senate prohibited release of taxpayer funds to the PLO unless the PLO complied with its commitments to renounce and control terrorism. Congressional action did not filter down to diplomats on the ground, though. “I took every opportunity I could to see Arafat,” recounted Edward Abington Jr., the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. “I just felt it was important to be seen as very active, as understanding Palestinian positions, showing sympathy and empathy.” In retirement, Arafat rewarded Abington with a golden parachute.

Throughout the later Clinton administration, the State Department actively buried information that it had at its disposal proving Arafat’s complicity in terrorism in order to avoid triggering an automatic U.S. aid cut-off. Documents captured from Arafat’s Ramallah compound showed the depth of Arafat’s personal involvement in financing and directing terror attacks. A comparison of declassified intelligence with the timing of Congressional testimony by senior American diplomats shows unequivocally that senior State Department officials—many of whom subsequently joined the Obama administration—had simply lied to Congress in order to keep the taxpayer money flowing and keep shuttle diplomacy alive.

Jonathan is absolutely correct that “Congress must restrict his ability to funnel money to Palestinian terrorists in the future. Let us hope they have the will. But until Congress holds senior American officials accountable for demonstrably lying to Congress, there is no disincentive for flagrantly breaking the law.

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