WASHINGTON — Right-wing groups are gearing up to fight a Bush administration plan to increase American aid to the Palestinians and channel it directly to the Palestinian Authority.
The Zionist Organization of America and several Christian evangelical groups are planning to “try to convince Congress not to finance the evolution of a terrorist state,” said the ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein.
However, Capitol Hill sources say that an administration request for a direct infusion of increased aid to the authority is likely to win easy approval on Capitol Hill.
The administration request, which has not yet been made, is expected to include two components: delivering aid directly to the P.A. — not through non-governmental organizations as is the arrangement today — and a significant increase in the scope of the American aid to the authority.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice reportedly raised the idea of a comprehensive rehabilitation of the Palestinian economy through American funds during meetings with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials on her visit to Israel this week. Rice was scheduled to meet a group of presidents of Jewish organizations Wednesday to report on her trip and secure Jewish support for the administration’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
During her trip to Israel, according to a report in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Rice floated the idea of an aid package of up to $1 billion. While congressional aides doubted that such a high amount would be forthcoming from American sources, they said that an administration request for an increase in aid to the P.A. would probably encounter minor opposition.
Klein, however, is vowing to battle any plans to end the current ban on direct funding to the authority. It was the ZOA that successfully lobbied Congress to adopt the ban in the first place, over the objections of the Clinton administration and other Jewish groups.
If approved by Congress, the proposed changes in funding would represent a dramatic shift in the way the U.S. provides assistance to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Congressional legislation banning direct transfer of U.S. funds to the P.A. was enacted piecemeal since 1994 to ensure that American dollars do not end up supporting Palestinian violence against Israel.
Just months ago, the administration was seeking to bypass the P.A., viewing it as a corrupt, untrustworthy apparatus, marred by terrorism. Now it will seek to fund the authority, recognizing it as financially transparent and a responsible partner in the peace process.
The United States currently supplies approximately $70 million annually for development projects in the West Bank and Gaza through the U.S. Agency for International Development and an additional $120 million to United Nations relief organizations. The P.A. receives approximately $1 billion a year in direct aid from the European Union and from Arab donors.
State Department sources this week confirmed reports that Washington is hoping that the promise of increased aid will spur Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and his aides to disarm the Islamic militant group Hamas. The money, the sources said, would go toward rebuilding damaged infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, creating jobs and providing effective social services to the Palestinians.
The administration’s plan is first to infuse between $200 million and $300 million from a reserve of aid that was budgeted for the Palestinians during the last few years but was not fully paid out. The administration then intends to ask Congress to appropriate an additional large sum to further help revive P.A. institutions and security services.
In general, Washington observers say, Bush has been successful in winning support for his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
Last week, in a 399-to-5 vote, the House passed a resolution condemning Palestinian terrorism and expressing “solidarity with the Israeli people as they respond to ongoing terrorist attacks” and describing “Israel’s fight against terrorism as part of the global war against terrorism.” The resolution also commended “the President of the United States for his vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” and called for “support to the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to confront and fight terror.”
The aim of additional American aid is to boost the Palestinian Authority as an effective, reliable government that can outperform Hamas in addressing the dire humanitarian needs of the Palestinians. In turn, the Americans hope, the authority will gain the legitimacy that it needs among the Palestinian public to disarm Hamas, whether peacefully or by force.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a series of television interviews earlier this week, explained the American strategy of strengthening Abu Mazen, just hours after Israeli forces withdrew from the northern Gaza Strip. “We hope with these actions,” Powell said, “the Palestinian people will realize that Prime Minister Abbas is producing for them, and thereby they will empower him even further.”
Meanwhile, the White House is also putting pressure on Arab states to shut down any funding channels to Hamas. According to administration officials, these efforts have been quite successful. Funding to Hamas from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors has significantly declined recently, leaving Iran as the chief source of funding for Hamas, one administration official said.