Administration Won't Take Sides in Terrorism Case Against Palestinians

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Bush administration said yesterday it is concerned that lawsuits by victims of terrorism could harm the "financial and political viability" of the Palestinian Authority, and asserted its interest in continuing to monitor such lawsuits. But it told a federal judge it will not offer an opinion on whether he should nullify a $174 million judgment.

The decision in effect allows the State Department to sidestep a politically vexing issue concerning victims of terrorism, while retaining the option of intervening later if it appears that the cases could imperil the government headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, officials said. In its filing to the court yesterday, the administration said it supports compensation for victims of terrorism, but urged a settlement of the lawsuits to the "mutual benefit" of all parties.

Lawmakers had urged State in recent weeks not to intervene, and the families of victims held emotional meetings with officials from the State and Justice departments two weeks ago. All sides claimed some measure of victory with the filing yesterday.

"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," said Leslye Knox, widow of Aharon Ellis, a U.S. citizen killed in Israel in 2002. A federal judge in 2006 ordered the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority to pay Knox and other Ellis relatives nearly $174 million, but nothing has been paid.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in a statement, noted that the Authority faces nearly $1 billion in default judgments. He said that "it is critical that the Palestinian Authority now be given an opportunity to defend itself."

The Palestinian Authority initially argued that it has sovereign immunity, meaning that as a state it is beyond the reach of the U.S. legal system. But U.S. courts rejected that position, noting that Palestine is not a state.

With a new set of lawyers, the Palestinian Authority said last year that the Knox judgment should be nullified because the Authority was now prepared to litigate the case and offer a vigorous defense. U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero issued an order in December requesting the government answer whether it was considering making a "statement of interest" in the case because of its international ramifications.

Government lawyers decided that the Palestinian Authority had had sufficient opportunities to contest the Knox verdict and that the bar was too high for the administration to support setting aside the judgment and allowing a new trial. But officials said they wanted to send a signal that it had a broad interest in these cases and did not want the U.S. legal system to harm the administration's effort to bolster the Palestinian Authority, which is one reason that the statement referred to both the Authority's "financial" and "political" viability.

At the same time, the administration, which has made the "war on terror" a central facet of its foreign policy, did not want to appear indifferent to terrorism victims' needs.

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