Congress Differs With Israel, Bush Over Aid to Palestinians

By Ori Nir

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Israeli and American officials are seeking to boost Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to curb the influence of Hamas. But Congress, with the support of Jewish groups, is pushing legislation that could hinder such efforts.

With the support of some Arab governments, Washington and Jerusalem are searching for ways to maintain relations with the P.A. and to curtail the power of Hamas after its victory in the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections, according to American, Israeli and other foreign diplomats in Washington. The main goal, these sources said, was to bolster Abbas as he negotiates with Hamas over the makeup and the responsibilities of the Cabinet that it forms.

The unanimity among Israeli, American and Arab officials has been obscured by the insistence of American lawmakers and pro-Israel advocates in Washington on isolating the P.A. in response to the Hamas victory. Efforts to prop up Abbas, especially with American aid, are meeting stiff and broad bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill, some of which is from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who chairs the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on the Middle East. Ros-Lehtinen this week introduced a bill that would forbid the administration from giving direct financial support to any wing of the P.A., and would impose conditions on granting indirect aid through nongovernmental organizations.

Ros-Lehtinen said that despite past displays of support from the United States, “the response from Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and the P.A. leadership was to do nothing and allow the terrorists to continue unfettered, killing innocent human beings.” She added, “There should be no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who train them, finance them, give them safe haven, or allow them to continue their terrorist activities untouched.”

A staffer for a Democrat on Ros-Lehtinen’s committee concurred: “The idea of preserving Abu Mazen as a mask on the monster in order to deal with the monster is absurd. It’s putting lipstick on a pig. It’s delusional. The administration has to realize that it is over for Abu Mazen.”

In the face of such criticism, Abbas is lobbying to continue serving as an address for the international community, the Forward has learned.

Abbas has insisted to Israel that as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization — the Jewish state’s official interlocutor in peace negotiations — he intends to maintain political contacts with Israel, as well as effective control over the Palestinian security apparatus and control over the P.A.’s budget. In response, Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, ordered the release of the $53 million monthly transfer of customs and value-added tax funds that Israel owes the P.A. The money had been frozen by Jerusalem after the Hamas victory.

In meetings last week with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, and in conversations with other senior Arab officials, Abbas pitched himself to Hamas as a moderating factor, a check and a legitimate address for the international community, sources said. In turn, Arab diplomats in Washington have asked the Bush administration to empower Abbas by maintaining diplomatic relations with him, supplying technical support for the Palestinian security services and providing American financial aid to the territories via his office.

Last week, however, Ros-Lehtinen introduced her bill — along with Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on International Relations. The bill, which makes no distinction between the P.A. president and the P.A. Cabinet, enjoys broad support in the House and has been endorsed by Washington’s pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The bill goes much further than the demands made by the Bush administration and even by Israel — including a requirement that the P.A. “publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” If the demands are not met, the bill calls for the P.A. to be slapped with sanctions, including restrictions on American exports, a ban on American visas for anyone affiliated with the P.A., and restrictions on the movement of officials representing the P.A. or the PLO in America.

Most Jewish groups are supporting the bill. So far, only one of the dovish Jewish groups that has lobbied for aid to the P.A. in the past, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, has said that it will oppose the bill.

Hill staffers predicted that the administration would try to water down Ros-Lehtinen and Lantos’s bill but would not oppose it. The president’s budget request, submitted this week to Congress, asks for $150 million for projects in the West Bank and Gaza — about the same as last year — to be administered by United States Agency for International Development. This year’s budget request, however, states that “in light of recent legislative elections, the administration is reviewing the West Bank/Gaza program details.”

Hamas leaders said that they intend to form a government within weeks. They indicated that the Cabinet would comprise Hamas activists and exclude politically unaffiliated technocrats.

Such a Hamas-led Cabinet, the Forward has learned, would not only be shunned by governments worldwide. Bannerman Associates, the Washington lobbying firm that represents the P.A. on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch, intends to de-register with the Department of Justice in April. The firm is considering whether to re-register just as an agent of the Palestinian president, Abbas. Several international charitable organizations, which now work with the P.A. in providing humanitarian services to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, will impose strict conditions on themselves to avoid any allegations that they are dealing with terrorists, officials with such groups told the Forward.

“It doesn’t surprise me that people would not want to be associated with a Hamas government,” said Larry Garber, former West Bank and Gaza mission director of USAID and current executive director of the New Israel Fund. “Associating with terrorists is illegal.”

Hamas officials were not flinching in the face of threats of reduced aid from the West.

“Western nations can take their aid and get lost,” the leader of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Mahmoud Zahar, said in an interview with The Washington Times. Hamas officials said that Arab and Muslim regimes have indicated that they would fill the financial void. However, experts say that a Hamas government would be hard pressed to find international donors that would supply it with the same funding that the West has: about $1 billion a year over the past four years.

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