WASHINGTON — Defying the wishes of the Bush administration, Congress approved a foreign-aid package this week forbidding any direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority and, in a rare snub, denying the president the authority to waive restrictions in the interest of national security.
The legislation was approved 388-to-44 in the House of Representatives and is expected to sail through the Senate. The House approved $200 million in aid, to be channeled to nongovernmental projects outside the control of the P.A., as part of an $81 billion in emergency spending bill to help pay the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The limits on Palestinian aid were the product of a deal brokered by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse, known as Aipac, was called to mediate talks involving administration officials and lawmakers from both parties, including New York Rep. Nita Lowey, an influential Jewish Democrat, congressional sources said. Sources also said that the driving force behind the rejection of direct aid was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, who at one point threatened to cut all aid to the Palestinian territories out of the bill.
“DeLay became more Jewish than the chief rabbi — if you can twist the phrase that way — and he was not going to let it through,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York who supported direct aid.
DeLay’s office did not respond to a request for comment by presstime.
DeLay’s success in blocking direct aid has some lawmakers and
Jewish communal officials worried about the degree to which the Texas Republican, an evangelical Christian who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, will go to undercut American and Israeli attempts to achieve a two-state solution. Some supporters of direct aid also argued that Jewish organizations have failed to do enough to inform lawmakers about the increasingly positive American and Israeli view of newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas is said to have earned the trust of the White House with his repeated pledges to end attacks on Israel and to renew diplomacy. The chief of staff of the Israeli military, Moshe Ya’alon, recently declared that under Abbas, the P.A. had begun to fight terrorism and “is rejecting terrorism as a political tool.”
Critics say that DeLay’s demands have thwarted administration efforts to empower the newly elected Palestinian president and make an immediate tangible change in the living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel’s government indicated privately and publicly that it had no objection to funneling American aid directly to Abbas. Many Jewish organizations also voiced support.
“Abbas should have some discretion over deciding which projects are funded,” Matan Vilna’i, a member of the Labor Party and a minister without portfolio in the Israeli government, told the Forward. “It is important that he is perceived as having control — at least of some of the funds — in order to strengthen his authority, to empower him.”
Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat who backed direct aid, said, “I don’t understand how it advances U.S. interests to put tougher conditions on President Abbas than we ever had for Arafat.”
“Taking away the ability of the president to send some of this aid directly to the Palestinian Authority, if he so chooses, is a mistake,” Capps said.
But proponents of the legislation — among them those who took part in drafting it — say that it is a reasonable compromise, which allows a significant increase in aid to the Palestinians while applying enough safeguards to make sure that the money is not abused.
“I feel we have a unique opportunity to advance the peace process, and because it is a special opportunity I think it is especially important that we hold the Palestinians accountable,” said Lowey, who, as ranking minority member of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign affairs, participated in drafting the language on aid to the Palestinians. “We just can’t take any risk that funds would end up in the wrong hands,” she said.
Before passing the bill Wednesday, House members overwhelmingly rejected an amendment, introduced by Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York, that would have blocked all aid to the Palestinians.
Many Jewish lawmakers with an interest in the bill relied on Lowey to handle the negotiations, said a staffer for one Jewish lawmaker who opposed direct aid.
According to well-positioned sources, members of the appropriations subcommittee tapped Esther Kurz, who directs Aipac’s legislative department, to broker compromise language that would satisfy DeLay’s demands while allowing the administration to have the money. Aipac, up to that point, had only been marginally involved in the Palestinian aid package. Now it was requested to exert its authority on Israel-related issues and to broker compromise language. The assumption, one source said, was that DeLay would be hard pressed to oppose language that the chief pro-Israel lobby has endorsed.
In addition to his close ties to Christian conservatives, DeLay has worked with the Zionist Organization of America, which vehemently opposes Israel’s Gaza disengagement plan and regularly criticizes Israeli and American efforts to support Abbas. DeLay was also close to Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew with hawkish views on Israel, until Abramoff’s recent legal troubles involving claims that he overcharged Native American tribes involved in casino gambling.
DeLay is also facing potential legal problems, after several of his associates were indicted in Texas on alleged campaign fund-raising violations.
Despite his mounting troubles, DeLay continues to be viewed in many circles as the most powerful member of Congress. So even securing $200 million for non-governmental agencies in the Palestinian territories was an accomplishment.
“You know, $200 million is better than nothing,” Ackerman said. “So to me this is something that I grudgingly accept as a political reality as far as Washington sometimes works, where one man’s authoritarian attitude can change the process if he is in a position of leadership.”
As a result of DeLay’s efforts, America’s financial assistance to the Palestinians will continue to be funneled — as it was in the past decade — through the U.S. Agency for International Development to contractors hired by the American government, to underwrite a list of development projects in the West Bank and Gaza prepared by the State Department.
Most of those who in the past month advocated direct aid — including Jewish members of Congress and America’s largest public-policy umbrella, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs which earlier this month adopted a resolution supporting direct aid — failed to weigh in during the congressional negotiations.
“If Aipac brokered it and the administration isn’t opposing it, how can we?” said a senior official with a major Jewish organization.
In sharp contrast to the silence of supporters of direct aid, hardline Jewish and Christian groups, including ZOA, have been lobbying against assistance to the Palestinians. The Christian Israel Public Affairs Committee has been asking members of Congress to oppose any P.A. aid, said Richard Hellman, president of the Christian organization.
America’s international allies had urged the administration to come through with direct aid. In turn, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated her support for the idea February 16, before the House subcommittee on foreign appropriations.
Under the deal, the full $200 million would be approved. None of that sum would be made available directly to the P.A. To ensure this, a provision was added canceling the traditional presidential waiver that allows the administration to override the language of the law and use aid money as it deems fit for national security considerations.
A Republican congressional aide told the Forward that the waiver would likely be restored during negotiations between House and Senate members.
The administration, sources said, grudgingly agreed to that language. One reason is that the president can still apply his waiver discretion to the remaining $55 million (of the original $75 million) that is still available in the 2005 fiscal year budget for P.A. aid. President Bush has used his waiver to provide assistance to the P.A. twice in the past year and a half. In 2003, when Abbas was appointed prime minister under Arafat, Bush set aside $20 million for the Palestinians. Most of it was used to pay Palestinian debts to the Israeli electricity company. Last year, after Arafat’s death, Bush set aside another $20 million, which was used to cover more electricity debts.