March 7, 2008
Families of terror victims can have their day in court
Families of terror victims got the green light to pursue lawsuits against the Palestinian Authority thanks to a personal lobbying blitz and some quiet diplomacy by U.S. lawmakers and the pro-Israel lobby.
About 20 lawsuits targeting the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- some dating back to the mid-1990s -- have been held up in recent months while the Bush administration considered a federal judge's request to weigh in on the issue.
In a Feb. 29 letter to Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court in New York, the Bush administration made clear it did not want to intervene -- for now.
The administration would "continue to monitor this and other cases like it," the letter said. "The United States has not yet decided whether or not to participate in those other cases."
The case in Marrero's court concerns a $174 million award to the widow, children and parents of Aharon Ellis, an entertainer and member of the Black Hebrew sect who was gunned down in a 2002 attack on a bar mitzvah in Hadera in northern Israel.
"We are grateful that at this time the U.S. government has decided to support justice over terror and that it will not now enter the case to support the terrorists," said David Strachman, an attorney who represents a number of the families.
"Ultimately, of course, it's the courts that will continue to adjudicate the victims' claims. On behalf of the families who have suffered so much, we will do everything we can to ensure that justice will prevail."
The lawsuits are based on legislation passed in the 1990s that make terrorist organizations and their enablers financially responsible for attacks on U.S. citizens. Not all the cases have been decided.
Even before Marrero asked for an opinion in December, the Palestinian Authority had been pressing the Bush administration to weigh in. It claimed that allowing Leslye Knox, Ellis' widow, to collect the award would create a precedent that eventually would bankrupt the authority at a time that its moderate leadership is facing down extremists and attempting to negotiate peace with Israel.
"I am glad that the government will not interfere at this stage and am hopeful that it will refrain from supporting the legal position of the terrorists-defendants in the future," Knox said in a statement.
It probably didn't help the Palestinians' case that the PLO's envoy in Washington had denigrated the families in an interview with the Washington Post, saying their lawsuits were "politically and ideologically motivated." Afif Safieh also presumptively announced "a rethinking in the State Department."
Still, the letter, signed by six Justice Department officials led by Jeffrey Bucholtz, the acting assistant attorney general, suggested that the Palestinian Authority's arguments remained persuasive.
"The United States supports just compensation for victims of terrorism from those responsible for their losses and has encouraged all parties to resolve these cases to their mutual benefit," the letter said. "At the same time the United States remains concerned about the potentially significant impact that these cases may have on the financial and political viability of the defendants."
In fact, sources say, the Bush administration reportedly had leaned initially toward intervening on the Palestinian Authority's behalf but was swayed by meetings last month between families and top Justice Department and State Department lawyers, as well as lobbying led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups.
Families who had traveled through a snowstorm to make the mid-February round of meetings were surprised to find that some of the top U.S. officials were on hand at some of the meetings, including John Bellinger III, the State Department's top lawyer, and Kenneth Wainstein, the assistant attorney general for national security.
An array of Jewish and pro-Israel groups also quietly pressed the case with members of the U.S. Congress and the administration.
AIPAC "applauded" the administration's decision not to intervene, spokesman Josh Block said, adding: "Any government interference in such cases would undermine the very purpose of the Antiterrorism Act -- to hold terrorists and their sponsors accountable."
A statement by the Orthodox Union, which also advocated on behalf of the families, thanked President Bush, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Michael Mukasey, the U.S. attorney general.
"We welcome the Bush administration's determination to let the families who have suffered such tragedies pursue justice against the perpetrators of terrorism without interference," the group said.
The families had met also with key lawmakers who had weighed in with the Bush administration in opposing intervention.
The leading Congressmembers advocating for the families included Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Brad Sherman (D-Van Nuys.).