US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attacked a Congressional decision to
withhold $200 million in civic financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority
during a Monday press conference.
“The administration [of US President
Barack Obama] opposes holding these funds from the Palestinians. This is a
critical time and it is not a time to withhold those funds,” he told reporters
during a press conference he held with Defense Minister Ehud Barak shortly after
landing in Israel.
The funds had been approved by Congress as part of its
fiscal 2011 budget which granted the Palestinians $400 million in civic
assistance and $1.5 billion for security needs.
Then in August the House
Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
(R-Florida), placed a hold on $200 million in civic assistance out of that sum,
when it became clear the PA planned to seek unilateral statehood at the UN. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations also placed a hold on the funds. The
measure was publicized only this weekend by the British newspaper The
Panetta’s comments mark the first high-level US response to
the measure. The money in question was earmarked for civic, humanitarian and
infrastructure projects. Funding for Palestinian security forces and the
United Nations Relief and Works Agency have not been impacted as of yet. Among
the agencies hard hit by the “hold” is USAID.
An American official told
The Jerusalem Post
that “our assistance to the Palestinian people is an
essential part of the US commitment to a negotiated two-state solution for
Palestinians and Israelis, promoting a comprehensive peace in the Middle
“We are working with the Congress to remove congressional holds
blocking the release of [fiscal 2011] assistance for the Palestinians,” the
“The lifting of the holds is necessary for programs to
continue as planned. Ongoing programs will continue until funds are exhausted,”
According to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Panetta
told the PA leadership when he met with them in Ramallah on Monday that
Washington was making big efforts to change Congress’s decision to suspend
financial aid to the Palestinians.
Mohammed Shtayyeh, member of the Fatah
Central Committee and a close aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said that the
Arab and Islamic countries have expressed readiness to compensate the
Palestinians for the loss of Western aid.
He said that since the
establishment of the PA in 1994, the US has given the PA a total of $2.4 billion
- $150m. a year.
In addition, the Americans have given the Palestinians
another $1b. in aid through non-governmental organizations during the same
period, he added.
Shtayyeh said the US Administration was not bound by
Congress’s decisions and could “bypass” the legislature, as was the case in
2006. Then, Congress decided to suspend financial aid after the formation of a Fatah-Hamas unity
According to Shtayyeh, the EU’s Foreign Policy chief
Catherine Ashton has assured Abbas that the EU would seek to fulfill all its
financial obligations to the Palestinians.
He quoted Ashton as saying
that the EU would not link the aid to the PA leadership’s decision to apply for
full membership in the UN.
A number of US representatives and senators on
both sides of the aisle, however, have been very firm in their determination to
block funding to the PA – particularly in the fiscal year 2012, should it
continue to pursue unilateral statehood.
After Abbas formally requested
UN membership on September 23 in New York, Ros- Lehtinen said: “Abu Mazen’s
speech further demonstrated that the Palestinian leadership is not a partner for
peace. There must be consequences for Palestinian and UN actions that undermine
any hope for true and lasting peace.”
In June, the Senate approved
Resolution 185, which warned that Palestinian efforts to gain recognition of a
state outside of direct negotiations would have implications for continued US
Representative Kay Granger (R-Texas) who chairs the House
Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations and committee member
Nita Lowey (D-New York) both warned Abbas this summer that such a move would
occur if he continued to pursue unilateral statehood.
Abbas told Panetta
that the Palestinians are prepared to return to the negotiating table if Israel
stops construction in the settlements and accepts the pre-1967 lines as the
basis for a two-state solution.
It’s a stance he has held to for the last
year. Israel has refused to cede to his demand and insisted that
negotiations be resumed without pre-conditions.
On Sunday Israel accepted
a proposal by the Quartet to relaunch talks within 30 days with the goal of
reaching a final-status solution by December 2012. The Palestinians have yet to
agree to the Quartet proposal.
Erekat, who attended the meeting in
Ramallah between Abbas and the US Secretary of Defense, said that Panetta
carried “clear messages” to the Palestinians. Erekat said that Panetta affirmed
Obama’s commitment to the two-state solution.
The Palestinian negotiator
quoted Panetta as saying that Obama considers the establishment of a Palestinian
state as a Palestinian, Israeli and American interest.
“The US Secretary
of Defense said that the US sees that the most appropriate way is the resumption
of the peace talks, and the recent Quartet proposal provides a mechanism for
this,” Erekat told the Bethlehembased Ma’an News Agency.
Abbas, for his
part, told Panetta that he agrees to the Quartet proposal on the condition that
Israel halt settlement activity, including Jewish building in east
Abbas said that Netanyahu should assume responsibility and
meet these conditions, Erekat added.
Meanwhile, Nimer Hammad, a top
adviser to Abbas, reiterated the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a
He said that if US financial aid to the Palestinians was
conditioned on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, “we won’t do so at all.”