President Bush beat back a serious challenge to his Middle East peace policy Thursday by engineering the defeat in the Senate of a proposal to end U.S. negotiations with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Responding to an impassioned letter from the President, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted, 75 to 23, to reject a measure by conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would have prohibited negotiations with PLO leaders responsible for past acts of terrorism against Americans.
Instead, the Senate voted, 97 to 1, for a weaker measure that will allow talks with the PLO to continue. Co-sponsored by Senate Democratic and Republican leaders and acceptable to the President, the substitute was attached to a bill authorizing fiscal 1990 funds for the State Department. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week.
Helms, the only senator to vote against the substitute, dismissed it as "nothing but a fig leaf."
Bush told Senate members in his letter that Helms' proposal was unconstitutional and that it could doom diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.
"After six months of careful preparation, we have arrived at a sensitive but promising diplomatic juncture," he said. "This is no time to take away from the executive a key tool of our diplomacy. Should this amendment become law, U.S. influence would be diminished and the prospects for peace significantly and possibly decisively undermined."
Bush was referring to the Administration's efforts to prod Israel into carrying out a proposal for elections among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The proposed elections have been jeopardized by hard-line conditions for balloting established by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud Party.
Bush had tried to avoid a straight up-or-down vote on the Helms proposal by negotiating a compromise with the North Carolina senator. Helms said he received several calls from the President--including one from Air Force One as Bush returned from Europe earlier this week--as well as several visits from White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, asking him to back down on the amendment.
But several days of behind-the-scenes negotiations involving Helms, the Senate leadership and the White House failed to produce a compromise, forcing the President to lobby all-out against the proposal.
The President's success was assured when he enlisted the support of Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) as well as most of the Senate's most outspoken opponents of the PLO, including Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.).
Helms' proposal would have prohibited Administration officials from negotiating with any PLO representative who had participated directly or indirectly in any terrorist act that resulted in the death, injury or kidnaping of an American. Although it technically did not rule out all contacts with the PLO, Helms acknowledged that it would effectively end U.S.-PLO talks.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) voted for the Helms measure; Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) opposed it.
Delighted in Opposition
Helms, who clearly took delight in the consternation that his proposal created at the State Department, refused to yield to a compromise proposal on grounds that the United States should not be talking with terrorists whose activities have been responsible for the loss, he estimated, of at least 40 American lives.
He was particularly upset that U.S. representatives have been talking to Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, who is PLO leader Yasser Arafat's principal deputy and was the founder of the Black September terrorist organization that carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Khalaf also has been implicated in the 1973 killing of the U.S. ambassador to Sudan.
Helms said Khalaf has been "up to his armpits in all kinds of slaughter," making him an unacceptable representative for the Palestinians in talks with the United States.
"Some in the State Department have now endowed upon him the respectability of negotiator in the peace process," Helms said. "Shame! Shame! I'll have no part of that. . . . I don't say that we cannot sit down and talk with some members of the PLO, just so long as they haven't been involved in terrorism against American citizens."
Likewise, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Helms' principal supporter on the PLO issue, argued that discussions with the organization are undermining the President's stated policy that the United States would never deal with terrorists. He said the Administration's talks with the PLO are encouraging future terrorists to carry out violent acts against Americans.
In response, Bush argued that Helms' amendment not only would undermine the peace talks but that it also would illegally restrict his right to carry out American diplomacy. He described it as "an unwarranted and unacceptable intrusion by the legislative branch on the powers and responsibilities of the presidency."
Contrary to Grassley's argument, the President and his supporters also asserted that talks with the PLO are designed to bring an end to terrorism against Americans in the Middle East. If the talks end, Bush said, "the big losers would be Israel and ourselves."
The substitute amendment adopted by the Senate rules out negotiations with any PLO representative "if the President knows and advises the Congress that the representative directly participated in the planning or execution of a particular terrorist activity which resulted in the death or kidnaping of an American citizen."
Although this language was carefully drafted to permit the talks to continue without interruption, Dole said Secretary of State James A. Baker III has promised to draw up a list of PLO members who would be excluded by this provision. It is not known how many names this would involve.
Mitchell said that although Bush is opposed to the substitute, he would not veto it.
Meanwhile, the Senate also voted, 97 to 0, in favor of an amendment authored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to make it easier for Soviet Jews, Soviet evangelical Christians, Ukrainians and Vietnamese to be admitted to the United States as refugees.
According to Lautenberg, the Immigration and Naturalization Service no longer presumes that these groups face persecution in their homelands and, as a result, many of them have been denied refugee status.
Lautenberg said that Jews, evangelical Christians and Ukrainians continue to face oppression in the Soviet Union, despite changes in Soviet immigration policies. "The very fact that someone belongs to one of these groups means that they have a very real fear of persecution," he said.
Lautenberg's amendment to the State Department funding bill would require the INS to ease the burden of proof that people in these groups must satisfy to gain admittance to the United States.