Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits key U.S. Arab allies next week, seeking a united stance on the issue of aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government. As part of an aid review, the Bush administration has asked the Palestinian Authority to give back nearly $50 million in unspent U.S. aid money.
The secretary will visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a five-day mission beginning Monday aimed partly at building a united front against aiding a Hamas-led Palestinian government that does not recognize Israel and renounce terrorism.
The United States and its partners in the diplomatic "Quartet" on the Middle East - the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - said late last month that donors should review aid to a new Palestinian government based on its commitment to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and commitments including the Quartet's peace "road map."
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Secretary Rice will make the same appeal to Arab allies that she has to European partners and others, to send a clear message to Hamas to meet the requirements of the international community.
"We encourage them to make the right choices, because if they do make the right choices then there is a pathway to peace," he said. "Then there is a partner for negotiations. And each country is going to make its own decisions concerning particular aid to a new Palestinian government. We have encouraged and will continue to encourage, both in public and private, individual countries to consider what kind of assistance they might provide in light of Hamas's decisions."
The Bush administration announced a review of its entire aid program immediately after Hamas scored its surprise win in the January 25 legislative elections.
More than $230 million in U.S. aid is earmarked for the Palestinians this year, though none is to go directly to the Palestinian Authority.
Spokesman McCormack said the caretaker government of Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to a U.S. request to return nearly $50 million that was delivered to the authority last year for Gaza reconstruction work, but has not been spent.
He said Palestinian officials had promised to send back the funds promptly, presumably before a Hamas-led government is seated.
Even if Hamas quickly met all the Quartet's terms for participation in the peace process, it would still be listed by the United States as a terrorist organization and as such barred from receiving any American assistance.
The Bush administration is under heavy pressure from Congress not to provide direct aid to a Hamas-led government under any circumstances.
But Spokesman McCormack suggested again Friday that U.S. humanitarian aid channeled through the United Nations or non-government organizations would likely continue.
"The United States does have an interest in seeing how we might provide for those who are the most vulnerable among the Palestinian population, the refugees for example," he said. "Those are assistance programs usually provided for through the U.N., so we are going to take a look at that. We're going to take a look at food aid programs, things like childhood immunizations. Although we haven't made any final decisions on that, those are certainly things we will look for a way to try to do."
About one-third of this year's U.S aid, some $80 million, is earmarked for the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, to which the United States has traditionally been the single largest contributor.
Secretary Rice's Middle East trip will include a meeting in Abu Dhabi with delegates of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where talks will also focus on Iraq and Iran.
The United States wants Gulf States to increase diplomatic ties with the new Iraqi government, and cancel old debts.
McCormack said Secretary Rice would also like to see the Gulf countries be more assertive in speaking out against Iranian government behavior, including its nuclear weapons ambitions and increasing domestic political repression.