News / Middle East

Congressional Panel Reexamines Aid to Palestinians

Cindy Saine

A key committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing on Wednesday to reexamine U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, if it goes ahead with plans to submit an application to the United Nations for full membership as a state.  Envoys for the United States and the European Union are trying to persuade the Palestinians to drop the U.N. statehood bid, which could come up as early as next week at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.

The Republican chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is a vocal opponent of the Palestinian plan.  And she criticized President Barack Obama and his administration for not speaking out sooner to dissuade the Palestinian Authority from seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations.

"We stand at a critical juncture with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will inevitably have a major impact throughout the region.  Events appear to be headed in an increasingly negative direction, and regrettably, the administration has been slow to take action," she said.

Ros-Lehtinen introduced a bill earlier this month that would cut funding to any United Nations agency that supports the Palestinian bid for statehood.  And at Wednesday's hearing, there was broad agreement among Republicans and Democrats that a unilateral bid for Palestinian statehood would be setback to the Mideast peace process.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Howard Berman, pointed out that the United States has been the biggest supporter of the Palestinian Authority, providing more than $4 billion in aid during the past 15 years.  He called on Palestinians not to put such assistance at risk. "Should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years will likely be terminated, and that could well result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.  And it pains me to say that.  U.S. aid has contributed significantly to many positive developments in the West Bank," he said.

President Obama has warned that if the Palestinians try to win statehood recognition from the U.N. Security Council, the United States will veto the resolution.  The United States has long maintained that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the only path toward peace in the Middle East, and achieving separate Israeli and Palestinian states that coexist peacefully.

Elliott Abrams, who served as President George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser for Middle East affairs, warned the committee that the United States should move cautiously on cutting aid to the Palestinians, and that it should distinguish between the Palestinian Authority, which is an administrative body, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO.  He said a symbolic, non-financial gesture might be the best response to Palestinian statehood recognition.

"I think you ought to move to close the PLO office in Washington.  It is the PLO that is doing this.  It is the PLO whose ambassador [Tuesady], in a speech that I would describe as disgusting, said that in the new state of Palestine there should not be one Jew," he said. "He did not say 'Israeli,' he said 'Jew.'"

Analyst David Makovsky of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned that a complete cut-off of U.S. aid might hurt moderate Palestinians and embolden Hamas, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. "Congressional aid has produced unprecedented levels of West Bank stability, prosperity, improved governance and previously unimaginable levels of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that have benefited Palestinians and Israelis alike.  Any changes to U.S. aid should therefore be carefully calibrated," he said.

Several Democratic and Republican members of the House panel questioned what U.S. taxpayers had received for their support to the Palestinians, and called on the Palestinian leadership to resume negotiations with Israel.

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