ZOA Opposes Bush Administration Considering Supporting PA’s Quest To Avoid Millions In Damages To American Victims Of Palestinian Terrorism
February 12, 2008

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) opposes the Bush Administration even considering aiding Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) in its efforts to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments won by American victims of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel. Palestinian officials and defense lawyers involved in the cases have said that the U.S. State Department is considering supporting the PA in its legal efforts, although no U.S. decision has yet been taken. Afif Safieh, head of mission in Washington for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said, “There has been a rethinking in the State Department that I wholeheartedly welcome” while condemning the lawsuits as being “politically and ideologically motivated to drive the Palestinian Authority into bankruptcy.”

Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler writes that the issue “could force the Bush administration to choose between supporting compensation for victims of terrorism and bolstering the Palestinian government.” Testimony in Israeli courts has connected senior PA leaders, including the late Yasser Arafat, with specific terrorist attacks that are now the subject of lawsuits. Congress passed a law in 1990 following the murder by Palestinian terrorists of an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro. A judgment was rendered against the Palestinians in a case brought by the children of Yaron Ungar, a U.S. citizen killed in Israel in a 1996 terrorist attack. Ungar’s relatives were awarded $116 million, which the PA has not paid.

The PA originally argued that it has sovereign immunity and is thus beyond the reach of the U.S. legal system, but U.S. courts have rejected that claim since the PA is not a sovereign state. After the Ungar case, about $200,000 in two of the PLO mission’s bank accounts were frozen in 2005, a situation that Safieh called a “nightmare.” On June 18, 2005, then PA finance minister (and now prime minister) Salaam Fayyad wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging the State Department to intervene, saying that the Ungar lawsuit was a “serious obstacle” to effective Palestinian participation in peace talks and was inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy.

Abbas also wrote to Rice in November 2006, after another court froze more than $100 million in retirement funds for Palestinian workers that were being managed in the United States. Rice responded with a neutral letter. She noted that the Ungar case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to review it, so “the judgment is final and enforceable in United States courts.” She suggested that the PA explore “out of court solutions so as to avoid enforcement actions.” In a response to a January 2007 plea from Abbas to aid the PA fight the lawsuits, Rice replied only that “the United States is not party to these enforcement proceedings.” However, last December, a U.S. federal judge asked the U.S. government whether it would get involved, bringing the issue under consideration.

PA officials have claimed that it makes no sense for the U.S. to be providing millions of dollars in aid to the PA while U.S. courts are threatening to bankrupt it. Families of Palestinian terror victims, who will meet with top State and Justice Department officials tomorrow, said that a U.S. intervention with the courts would make a mockery of the administration’s fight against terrorism. David J. Strachman, a Rhode Island lawyer who has spearheaded many of the lawsuits, said that, “If the State Department tips the scales of justice against the victims in order to support adjudicated terrorists, the war on terrorism will be seen throughout the world as a farce.”

Leslye Knox, a 46-year-old mother of six children and widow of Aharon Ellis, a U.S. citizen who was killed in 2002 while singing at a bar mitzvah in Hadera, Israel, also sued the PA under the same law and, in 2006, a federal judge ordered the PLO and the PA to pay Knox and other Ellis relatives nearly $174 million, but nothing has been paid while Knox has struggled to support her family. “Now here are the wrongdoers, they come to the government, and say, Hey, help us,’ “Knox said. “It’s hard to see why the government listens to them. It makes me feel like, ‘Who is on my side?’” (Glenn Kessler, ‘Palestinians Ask U.S. To Intervene in Suits Over Terrorist Attacks,’ Washington Post, February 12, 2008).

ZOA National President Morton A. Klein said, “It is wrong for the Bush Administration to even consider assisting the PA in fending off lawsuits through which the families of victims of Palestinian terrorism have sought a measure of justice against the murderers of their family members. The fact that it is considering altering its position, formerly upheld by Secretary Rice, that the U.S is not a party to the cases and that the relevant court orders are enforceable, was never announced and appears to have emerged solely because PA officials disclosed it.

“Even if the correct decision is finally made to refuse assistance to the PA in its efforts to avoid justice, the very fact that the Bush Administration is considering assisting the PA has caused enormous damage to the credibility of the U.S. in its fight against Islamist terror worldwide. The very fact that PA officials have the temerity to seek such assistance and argue that American failure to help them is inconsistent with U.S funding for the PA shows that they have concluded that they can get away with brazen sponsorship of terrorism. It also shows how misguided and wrong has been the Bush Administration policy of continuing and increasing funding for the PA.

“It is bad enough that the Bush Administration is doing this, despite the complete absence of any effort on Abbas’ part to jail terrorists and end the incitement to hatred and murder within the PA-controlled, media, mosques, schools and youth camps that feed terror. Now it is seriously considering denying a measure of justice to the American victims of PA-sponsored terror. The U.S. government is supposed to be championing justice for American citizens, not the financial interests of blood-soaked murderers of innocents it chooses to call moderates and allies.

“We strongly urge and hope that the Bush Administration will adhere to its former position and place no obstacle in the path of justice so that American citizens bereaved by Palestinian terrorists can claim the compensation they so obviously deserve.”

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