State Dept. must not succumb to pressure in terror lawsuit

State Dept. must not succumb to pressure in terror lawsuit

In a leap of logic, the State Department has been forced to reveal by leap-year day whether an important element in the "war on terror" — the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1990, which enables victims of terror to sue in federal court — has teeth or is little more than a sound bite. Much is at stake.

By today, the State Department must advise a federal court if it will succumb to Palestinian pressure — read: blackmail — and take the side of murderers by sabotaging a final judgment of $174 million against the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization.

The judge overseeing the case, which was brought in ‘003 by the widow of a man killed by Palestinian terrorists in Hadera, Israel, has asked the State Department to declare whether or not it intends to file a Statement of Interest to the effect that enforcing the judgment would be harmful to U.S. national interests. It’s something the Palestinians feverishly have been demanding.

Let’s hope our government has the courage to do the right thing, as it would be an utter perversion of justice to allow the terrorists literally to get away with murder while getting the administration to give the back of the hand to Lesley Knox, who brought the case. It would be even more unseemly to do so after the matter has been in court for nearly five years.

The case was brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was designed to hit terrorists where it hurts: in the pocketbook. As a reflection of how serious Congress was, the law even allows for the awarding of treble damages.

Until now the Bush administration has taken no position in the Knox case, apparently satisfied with the matter being handled through the judicial process, as intended by the act. Recently, however, with new high-profile attorneys in tow who have filed papers seeking to vitiate the judgment — extraordinary relief that is not lightly granted — the Palestinian Authority and PLO have been lobbying hard for the Statement of Interest.

Enforcing the judgment, they claim, would effectively bankrupt and weaken P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas at a sensitive time in the Middle East. (When, by the way, is it not a sensitive time?) Implicit in this is the all-too-common threat that going against the terrorists and their protectors would be to awaken the "Palestinian street." We all know what that means: Don’t fight the terrorists because that will only make them angrier and more violent.

The chief PLO representative in Washington has even boasted that there has been a "rethinking" at the State Department, suggesting there might well be receptive ears in Foggy Bottom. What’s the word I’m looking for? Ah yes, appeasement.

It is worth noting that Statements of Interest are not unknown commodities. They have been used of late to resolve private litigation involving thorny and sensitive issues that bore upon our national interests.

For example, these statements were invoked in lawsuits brought by Holocaust survivors against German companies that exploited slave laborers during the Nazi era. After lengthy negotiations involving the German government and companies, representatives of the survivors and the U.S. government, a financial settlement was reached. In return, German industry received assurances that in any litigation involving relevant claims, our government would submit a Statement of Interest to the effect it was in our nation’s interest to resolve these claims through settlement rather than litigation.

The point here is obvious and most significant: The Statement of Interest procedure was the result of a serious negotiation among all interested parties. That is not what the Palestinians are proposing; they want to vacate the judgment.

Abbas is essentially putting a gun to the head of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He is threatening that to satisfy a duly rendered judgment under a law enacted precisely to cover a case such as the one brought by Knox would be to derail any chance of progress in the so-called "peace process" and by implication foment bloodshed.

Moreover, there is no provision in the Anti-Terrorism Act for the issuance of a waiver by the executive branch to override the courts in the name of the national interest, which in this case would mean not offending the Palestinian Authority. However, waiver authority is contained in other legislation, underscoring that if Congress intended to grant executive authority to overrule any of the terrorism act’s provisos, it could have and would have written it into the act. It chose not to do so.

In other words, it would be a mighty stretch for the State Department to submit a Statement of Interest in the Knox case. If it does, there is always the hope that the judge will not defer to it.

For those in the State Department whose hearts bleed for the downtrodden and misunderstood terrorists, I’m sure they could find a way to allow our anti-terrorist laws to be enforced without harming our legitimate national interests.

The bankruptcy argument is hardly persuasive. The United States has given billions to Palestinian leadership, only to see it squandered through widespread corruption and mismanagement. If the Palestinian Authority is looking for a way to satisfy the court judgment, perhaps Abbas should track down the widow of Yasser Arafat before she goes on her next shopping spree.

Neal M. Sher, a New York attorney, has served as the executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department.