WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s efforts to revive the Palestinian economy and boost the peace process with a quick infusion of American aid is facing stiff resistance from some pro-Israel forces on Capitol Hill.
Supporters of the assistance fear that the stringent conditions being proposed by opponents to the Palestinian aid package will slow down or even sink the administration’s attempts to secure direct financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. The Bush administration is asking Congress for $200 million in emergency aid for the Palestinians, in addition to the $150 million for the Palestinians in the president’s 2006 fiscal budget.
Powerful members of the House of Representatives, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican, and several Democratic lawmakers, are either opposing any direct aid to the P.A. or pushing for more stringent conditions on direct assistance. Many in Congress are concerned that the aid package might be thwarted by such conditions, including calls for American funds to be dependent on Arab countries fulfilling previous financial pledges to the Palestinians.
“If you want to ensure that there will not be a peace process, then you attach enough strings [to the aid package] that you strangle the process,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, the ranking Democrat on House Subcommittee on the Middle East.
Congressional staffers who sought guidance from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying organization, were told that Aipac supports aid to the Palestinians, including direct cash assistance — as long as safeguards are in place to make sure that the funds are not used to fund terrorism or to perpetuate corruption in the P.A.
But for the most part, Aipac and other prominent Jewish organizations are not actively lobbying for or against the aid package. The lack of lobbying comes despite White House and Israeli support for the plan.
Israeli officials recently said that Jerusalem might be facing a situation similar to the one that existed in the mid-1990s, when American Jews were slow to adjust to Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement during the Oslo process.
To address that concern, American Jewish communal leaders, returning from a week of political meetings in Israel, will brief their groups and communities, said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Members of the Conference of Presidents, widely viewed as the American Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs, met with top representatives of the Israeli government, Israeli military leaders and representatives of the P.A.
At a press conference in Jerusalem, the chairman of the conference, James Tisch, said that the umbrella group has “unequivocally” expressed its support for the plan, a sentiment echoed by Hoenlein.
President Bush, speaking in Brussels this week, called peace between Israel and its neighbors “our greatest opportunity, and our immediate goal.” He declared that “peace is within reach” and said he intends to be personnaly involved.
Such involvement will be needed to pass the aid package, said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a longtime proponent of aggressive American efforts to secure a two-state solution. The organization has emerged as the chief Jewish group lobbying for direct aid to the Palestinians.
Lobbying against the package is the Zionist Organization of America, which has become increasingly vocal in its criticisms of the Gaza disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.
Opponents to a quick, loosely conditioned aid package are in the minority, especially in the Senate, according to congressional insiders. However, some of the opponents are highly influential. They could significantly hinder the administration’s attempt to rush cash to the West Bank and Gaza in order to produce a “peace dividend” by creating jobs and instilling a sense of economic recovery among Palestinians.
DeLay, a top ZOA ally, is set to impede progress on the current aid plan, his aides told reporters last week. They said that the majority leader, who is highly skeptical of the P.A. and of current Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, would try to detach most of the proposed Palestinian aid from the administration’s $82 billion supplemental spending request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — a move that would slow down the disbursement of aid and allow legislators more time to scrutinize and attach conditions to the package.
A DeLay spokesman told the Forward the Majority Leader believes that “the first step in discussing any aid package to the Palestinian Authority [is] to ensure that there is a real commitment — not only in rhetoric but in action — to going after the terrorist organizations.”
Last December DeLay, who in the past vehemently opposed direct aid to the Palestinians, proved his ability to restrain such assistance when he successfully insisted that almost all the $20 million requested by the administration for assisting the election of a new Palestinian president actually go to cover Palestinian utility bills to Israel.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat representing heavily Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, are squarely opposed to directly funneling aid through the P.A. Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the lone Holocaust survivor in Congress, is among those arguing that America should not send funds to the P.A. as long as Arab states do not fully live up to the funds they pledged to support the fledgling Palestinian entity in past years. Others, including Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, are demanding that any American funds be contingent on the Palestinians proving that they are effectively fighting terrorism, incitement and corruption in their midst.
Israeli officials pointed out that Jerusalem and the White House do support safeguards against money being spent on terrorist activities, as does the World Bank, the European Union and other donors to the P.A. Even Palestinian officials stated recently that such safeguards are welcome.
Yet the demands of some lawmakers extend far beyond such proposals.
Ackerman criticized colleagues who oppose the administration’s push for a quick, direct aid package, accusing them of refusing to join Israel’s prime minister in taking chances for peace.
“If you want to make sure that the process succeeds, step up to the plate,” Ackerman said. He lamented what he described as the “pandering” of some of his congressional colleagues to their constituents by “playing tough guys.”
Lantos rejected Ackerman’s criticism. “Only through the adoption of my conditions do we have any chance of the [peace] process going forward,” Lantos said.
“One of the things that we have learned the lesson about, very painfully,” Lantos said, “is that the Palestinians have to be held to their promises, both in regards to the total termination of their terrorist activities and promises with respect to full transparency and accountability.”
Lantos denied suggestions made by congressional staffers that legislators demanding strict conditions on aid to the P.A. are out of step with positive development between Israel and the Palestinians. “There is no reluctance to recognize a new reality,” Lantos said. “But there is total reluctance on my part to closing my eyes to the continuous terrorist activity and financial corruption” in the Palestinian Authority.