US Congress 248.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hours after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged $555 million on Monday to assist the Palestinians, the US House of Representatives voted to allocate just a fraction of the request.
The move underscored the difficulty the administration will have in reversing a long-standing practice of Congressional hesitance over giving money to the Palestinians, even as the US pushes for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
The economic assistance approved by the House late Monday night comes to $218.5m., about half of the $413.5m. in economic assistance the administration asked for in two separate budget requests for 2008. Other types of aid - such as funds for food, refugees and narcotics control - push the US funding request up to the $555m. figure and have met less Congressional opposition.
Of the economic assistance, the House allowed $100m. to be given directly to the Palestinian Authority. Another $50m. the administration wanted to directly transfer will be dependent on the secretary of state certifying that various transparency mechanisms have been implemented.
In addition, the $218.5m. will be subject to an across-the-board cut of 0.81%, a decrease that would push Israel's military aid from $2.4 billion down to around $2.38b.
The PA funding still represents a dramatic increase from 2007, when just $50m. in economic aid was given to the Palestinians, and indicates Congress's willingness to lend at least some additional support to the PA. In 2008, as in past years, the Palestinians will also receive US funds through contributions to the United National Relief and Works Agency and US food aid.
The Senate is also expected to approve the budget soon, but after that it faces a veto threat from the president over funding for the war in Iraq and other spending issues. It's possible, though, that the Senate will bridge the differences and enable him to sign off on the budget.
If it's vetoed, the 2007 budget should continue through the next year until a new version of the 2008 budget is signed.
Congressional staffers indicated that the decision to give the Palestinians less than the administration requested stemmed from a need to cut costs, as well as concerns about the large increase in aid to the PA and how it might be handled.
"There might be a certain incredulity factor regarding the Palestinians' ability to absorb so much," said one House staffer, referring to a difficulty for representatives "to wrap their minds around the fact that we're suddenly increasing aid to the Palestinians by eight [times]."
In the past, Congress has criticized the PA for corruption and mismanagement of international funds, and has expressed concern that money could flow through the PA to terrorists. However, Congress has added language about auditing, and previous legislation outlaws any funding to Hamas and other terror organizations.
Henrietta Fore, director of US Foreign Assistance, stressed the importance of the aid in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
There is a "sense that there is building momentum after the Annapolis conference, and that this is a moment we want to seize upon to build trust among the parties," said Fore, a ranking member of the US delegation at the Paris donor's conference, which was led by Rice.
Fore said the US wanted to be sure to "be a major part in helping this process move forward." She expressed optimism that Congress would find a way to fully fund the $555m. pledge.
While both the administration and Congress have been hesitant to funnel funds directly to the PA Treasury, this time it decided to request a $150m. transfer into the account set up by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. This, Fore said, was a vote of confidence in Fayad, who took over once Hamas was no longer part of the PA national unity government - a presence that had greatly complicated aid efforts for the Palestinians.
Asked whether, in light of past experience with the PA, she was concerned that the money would not go toward its goals but rather be either siphoned off by corrupt politicians or used for terrorist purposes, Fore said, "The Palestinians have put forth a Palestine reform and development program that looks solid and realistic, and looks focused on what we think are the right development priorities. So we think they will utilize the funds well for the Palestinian people."
Most of the administration's 2008 funding request for the Palestinians came in the form of a last-minute add-on - as part of a supplemental budget to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - to the year's budget.
It was added this fall as the US renewed its efforts to push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, first by sponsoring last month's international conference in Annapolis and then by attending the donors' conference Monday.
Rice made the $555m. commitment in the hope that it would help spur others to action. In total, $7.4b. was pledged by countries around the world to support the PA.
Regarding skepticism in Israel as to whether the money pledged by the Arab states, including $500m. from Saudi Arabia, would end up being paid, Fore said, "I think that we are just beginning to see the full support of the world, and that we will continue to follow up with all donors."
Fore added that Quartet envoy Tony Blair and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who chaired the Paris conference, "will follow up aggressively with the donors to see exactly where and how this support can be integrated and most effective."
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush will be traveling to Israel and the West Bank to support the ongoing Annapolis process, the White House officially announced Tuesday. He will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres before traveling to the West Bank to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Fayad.
Afterwards he will travel to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of his nine-day trip to the region.
In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush will also address the Iranian threat, the situation in Iraq and economic issues as he meets with his Middle Eastern counterparts. The White House described the trip as a means to "follow up on the progress made at Annapolis in helping Israelis and Palestinians to advance their efforts toward peace and achievement of the President's vision of two democratic states living side-by-side in peace and security."
Also Tuesday, Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino defined Israel's right to defend itself from attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip. Referring to the recent IDF strike on terrorists in the Gaza Strip, she said, "Israel has a right to live in a country free from terrorism. So do we; so does every nation."
Herb Keinon contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
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