As President Bush prepares to announce as early as this week a Middle East peace plan that is expected to include support for a Palestinian state, U.S. lawmakers are making their voices heard on the issue. With violence continuing in the region, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers say talk of Palestinian statehood is premature.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met with House and Senate leaders during his visit to Washington last week, believes the time is not right to discuss Palestinian statehood.
In Mr. Sharon's view, proposing a Palestinian state at a time when Palestinian suicide bombings continue against Israelis would, he believes, reward Palestinians for engaging in terrorism.
Many in Congress see it that way, too.
Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, expressed his views on CNN's Late Edition on Sunday. "I think you are holding out false hope potentially, saying you can have a state without a real genuine renouncing of terrorism. As long as there is a significant percentage of individuals willing to commit terrorist acts, you are never going to have peace, and probably never have a state either," he said.
According to news reports, Mr. Bush is nearing completion on a peace plan that would include a proposal for a provisional Palestinian state. Reports also say the plan would call on the Palestinian Authority to move forward with political reforms and security guarantees for Israel.
Although the plan also reportedly calls for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, it is the Palestinian statehood proposal that is generating congressional reaction.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, believes there can be no peace in the region until there is a change in Palestinian Authority leadership.
In a recent speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Daschle said the time has come for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to step aside.
"If Chairman Arafat would take consistent, decisive actions against terrorist violence, circumstances would be different. But he has been unwilling to exercise his basic authority that is required of his office, and required by the agreement he has signed and the commitments he has made on behalf of the Palestinian people," he said. "He has undermined his own credibility as a leader of the Palestinian people."
While arguing that Mr. Arafat's departure is necessary, Mr. Daschle says it must happen from within the Palestinian Authority.
It is a view shared by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, who also spoke on CNN's Late Edition.
"I believe somebody is going to have to come forward on behalf of the Palestinians who is going to speak for the people." he said.
Lawmakers are also demanding reform of the Palestinian Authority.
Senator Daschle acknowledges Mr. Arafat's expressed commitment to reform, but he says "words alone are not enough." "Chairman Arafat has put a figurehead in control of the security services, leaving the power in his own hands," he said. "He signed the basic law, but has done nothing to implement it. He added five new faces to his cabinet, none of whom has the power to affect real change. And he announced new elections, but set no date for them. It is time to demand results, beginning with a democratic Palestinian leadership that confronts corruption, and provides security for the Palestinian people and their neighbors."
Mr. Daschle also expressed support for Israel. He said the United States would continue to stand by its staunch ally when it takes risks for peace. "Israel must be secure enough to make peace, and strong enough to enforce it," he said.