Abbas Fayad 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
As the Palestinians grapple with trying to form a unity government, members of the US Congress are warning that the removal of Salaam Fayad from the role of prime minister could affect aid to the Palestinian Authority.
"It certainly makes it much more difficult," said US Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York), who chairs the House foreign affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, of efforts to allocate funds to a PA absent Fayad. "He's good, and he instills much confidence in the part of those [in Congress] who will have something to say about that money."
Fayad has tendered his resignation to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to help smooth the process for creating a unity government between Abbas's Fatah party and Hamas. Long negotiations have yet to bear fruit, but there's uncertainty whether Fayad would stay on even if a unity government wasn't formed.
Though he is currently retaining his post, Fayad's embrace of reform and Western standards of economic transparency haven't endeared him to Fatah's followers. Those qualities, however, have earned him international respect and have been crucial to the US government's willingness to transfer sums to the PA in the recent past.
Congress is due to soon receive an aid request from the Obama administration of up to $900 million for the Palestinians, and legislators could be more wary about approving it if they don't see Fayad in place.
"Everything is on hold there. If he's going to be there, we move forward. If he's not going to be there, [we] have to see who [will be]," Ackerman told The Jerusalem Post during a reception for the United Jewish Communities at Capitol Hill on Tuesday. "We're not going to throw money down a dark hole."
US Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that would have the greatest input on the funding request, emphasized that she hoped Fayad stayed on.
"I'm hoping that he will be the prime minister because he's been a very important leader and earned the respect of Congress," she told the Post. "His leadership has been critical."
At the same time, members of Congress and the Obama administration said that their support to the Palestinians was not dependent on any one person, and a lot would depend on who would comprise the leadership should Fayad go, even if Hamas were not in the government.
And one Congressional staff member pointed out that much of the American funding goes through NGOs and bodies like the United Nations Relief Works Agency, which wouldn't be affected by the composition of the Palestinian government.
UNRWA, however, might face challenges of its own in securing its piece of the $900m. pie. The US is the single biggest donor to the program, which provides humanitarian assistance and educates the one million refugees in Gaza. US lawmakers are increasingly taking aim at the agency for lacking transparency and helping Israel's enemies.
Currently, at least 75 members have co-sponsored legislation authored by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) to bar the funding to the Palestinians in part because of concerns about UNRWA. Separately, Steve Rothman (D-New Jersey) has called for UNRWA to be more transparent about the school textbooks it uses and whom it employs.
Though UNRWA has never been a favorite cause in Congress, Ackerman said that this year it could come under even stricter scrutiny stemming from the Gaza war this winter, which increased tensions and questions about UNRWA's activities.
UNRWA Director of Gaza Operations John Ging, on Capitol Hill Tuesday, said he welcomed the scrutiny of his organization. He made a rare appearance before legislative staff and local activists to tell them about UNRWA's work in Gaza during his visit.
He was brought to Congress by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Rep. Brian Baird (D-Washington) following their recent trip to Gaza, after which they pledged to share their experiences and that of Palestinian suffering there with their colleagues in Congress.
"People don't have enough awareness" of UNRWA's activities and the situation in Gaza, Ellison told the Post. "They've only heard from one side."
He said that the services the UN project provides are helping Gazans in need, and that if the UN didn't do it, Israel as the occupying power would be responsible for doing so. Ging also raised the possibility of extremists filling any vacuum created by UNRWA's absence.
"The main point is that UNRWA provides a valuable service and if they are not doing everything exactly right, they need to get it right, and what they're doing is beneficial to everyone," Ellison said.
Ging defended his organization against a common charge by critics, that it has known terrorists on its 10,000-person staff. He referred to a "zero-tolerance policy" where staff found to be taking part in such activities are fired along with their managers.
He called such cases "betrayals" and noted, "We take this very, very seriously." Rep. Eliot Engel, however, was not satisfied by Ging's comments.
Speaking to the Post at the UJC reception, the New York Democrat said, "They have fired anyone who embarrassed them by being a prominent terrorist, sure. But there are many terrorist collaborators, they're permeated with terrorist sympathizers, and I just think they discredit the entire organization. The whole issue of US funding to them needs to be reviewed." But Ging argued at his briefing, "We cannot tarnish innocent people with the acts of a few individuals" and that all countries and organizations occasionally encounter criminals.
He also said that UNRWA's use of a Syrian bank sanctioned by the US government had been addressed after it was brought to his attention. He said his agency had violated no laws by using the institution, a decision he attributed to the convenience of its wide network, but had stopped using it to be safe.
The bank's use as a mechanism for transferring donations to UNRWA had been one of Ros-Lehtinen's main charges against the organization.
"There are very legitimate concerns here," Ging said of the Congressional criticism. "With so many allegations â€¦ they must be addressed, and they must be addressed to the confidence of the decision-makers here, because it's their money." He added, "I'm confident that if properly informed, Congress will not cut aid to UNRWA because of what UNRWA is doing on the ground."