Amid reported White House pressure, bid to shut PLO’s Washington office fails in Senate

Right-wing ZOA praises senators for trying to pass a series of hard-hitting punishments for Abbas’s UN ‘Palestine’ victory; left-wing J Street chalks up initiative’s failure to mass email campaign

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US Congress (photo credit: CC BY-SA Dougtone, Flickr)
US Congress (photo credit: CC BY-SA Dougtone, Flickr)

NEW YORK — A series of hard-hitting amendments that would have severely penalized the Palestinian Authority, along with several states and international bodies, for the successful bid last week to upgrade the PA’s status to a “nonmember observer state” at the UN failed to pass in the Senate Tuesday. One of the defeated amendments would have closed down the PLO’s office in Washington.

The amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon budget bill, were removed before a voice vote that approved over 120 other amendments on Tuesday night.

The amendments, numbers 3139, 3203 and 3254, would have cut by 50 percent US funding for the PA and UN bodies that granted the PA the status change voted on last Thursday; slashed 20% of US foreign assistance to the 138 countries that voted for the status change; shut the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington; ended all US assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it sought to drag Israel before the International Criminal Court; and canceled all US funding for the United Nations if the world body instituted any status change for Palestine before the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel.

“Granting United Nations membership to the Palestinian Authority is a nightmare in the making for the peace process and future relations between the Congress and UN,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and sponsor of amendment 3203 that would have defunded the PA if it goes to the ICC.

“Granting a form of member-status to the Palestinians goes around the only viable way to negotiate a two-state solution — that’s between the parties themselves. I fear the Palestinian Authority will now be able to use the United Nations as a political club against Israel,” Graham added.

Other sponsors of the amendments included Republicans John Barrasso (Wyoming) and Jim Inhofe (Oklahoma), and Democrats Robert Menendez (New Jersey) and Chuck Schumer (New York).

According to Capitol Hill observers familiar with the amendments, they were removed due to pressure from the White House. While the Obama administration actively opposed PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s UN General Assembly move — which saw a vote of 138-9 last Thursday in favor of upgrading “Palestine” to a nonmember observer state — it was concerned that the proposed amendments would limit its options when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue going forward.

“Any administration will oppose amendments that will limit their prerogatives,” said a senior pro-Israel Capitol Hill source, noting however, that the amendments were not necessarily dead.

“Any reports of its ultimate demise are premature,” the source quipped about the Graham amendment. “It can be attached to another piece of legislation down the road. Senate amendments can resurrect themselves in other forms.”

Groups on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue have weighed in.

“Thanks to your outstanding efforts, the US Senate did NOT include a measure to expel the Palestinian diplomatic mission from the United States in the defense authorization bill which was passed a few minutes ago,” read a J Street letter to supporters Tuesday night.

A J Street campaign against the amendment generated 14,250 emails and 950 calls to Senate offices, the group said, “urging [senators] to oppose this and other attempts to punish the Palestinians for their approach to the United Nations by ejecting their official mission from our country.”

The group added: “This is a critical victory for the prospects for peace.”

In a statement Wednesday morning, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America said, “With its latest negation of Oslo and circumvention of negotiations, the PA should be subject to the sternest possible penalties in terms of U.S. funding and diplomatic support. We praise Senators Graham, Schumer, Barrasso and Menendez for taking a very important step in this direction.”

The NDAA may yet face a presidential veto for a range of other issues, including language related to a more aggressive US stance on Syria, new sanctions on Iran’s energy sector that are opposed by the White House, and amendments dealing with detainees in the war on terror.

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