Abbas Fayad 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Legislators are promising strict scrutiny of some $400 million the Bush administration is requesting in new aid for the Palestinians, but Congress is expected to give the proposal a warmer reception than previous such requests.
The administration has put forward the significant hike in Palestinian aid largely to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
Congress seems less wary of funding for Palestinians now that Hamas is no longer in the Fatah-controlled PA government, even though much smaller sums have been stalled in the past.
The request comes ahead of the US-sponsored Annapolis meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for which the administration has been trying to recruit support from the greater Arab world and the Palestinians themselves, who have threatened to boycott the parley.
In announcing the conference over the summer, US President George W. Bush suggested Palestinians should get more funding, but has offered none until now.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday justified the timing of the conference, as well as the new funding proposal, as a means to help PA moderates.
"Our concern is growing that without a serious political prospect for the Palestinians that gives moderate leaders a horizon that they can show to their people that indeed there is a two-state solution that is possible, we will lose the window for a two-state solution," she told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
When questioned about the new aid request, Rice said the administration was "seeking funds to support the government of Salaam Fayad and Mahmoud Abbas because we believe that this [represents] the best chance for moderate Palestinian government."
That argument resonates with many members of Congress who took a dim view when the administration requested only $86m. in security assistance to the PA at the beginning of the year. That was before Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and was cut out of what had been a unity government. That funding was stalled and eventually slashed by about a third.
This time the funds comprise $350m. in budget support and economic assistance to the PA; $25m. in drug enforcement and funds to help with PA security needs; and $35m. in aid to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The administration said the economic assistance funds were "required to help the Palestinian Authority build its infrastructure and meet its financial obligation to avoid a pending fiscal crisis that could undermine its authority."
The aid is part of a supplemental budget request mostly focused on funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That could help the PA money get through Congress, since it will be part of a faster allocation process than other foreign aid.
The feeling on Capitol Hill has shifted following the break-up of the PA unity government and the intensified US diplomacy.
"The general mood up there is that there isn't going to be vast opposition," said a Capitol Hill source. Referring to Abbas and Fayad, he said, "These guys are doing the right thing and people want to help them."
The request comes after a bipartisan letter sent to Rice that urged greater aid to the Palestinians to support the deepening of diplomatic efforts and a "reorientation of US project-focused assistance programs." The letter called for more job creation, reducing corruption, and improving law and order.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York), who drafted the letter, said the US needed to "put its money on a horse" - the Fatah one - in the race between Fatah and Hamas to find favor among the Palestinians.
"We have to make sure they win that two-horse race because the alternative is unacceptable," he told The Jerusalem Post.
Ackerman said if the new Palestinian funding request complied with the guidelines he set out in the letter, it would be worth supporting. But Congress had not yet been briefed on the funding request, he said.
Details such as funding mechanisms and who will be the recipient of the money - for instance, whether it goes to Abbas or Fayad directly as opposed to the PA generally - will be significant in determining whether it is approved.
A spokesman for Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, said there would be "strict scrutiny" for the Palestinian aid provision, as well as for the rest of the supplemental budget. Lowey held up approval of earlier Palestinian security money requests until she was satisfied the nonlethal assistance wouldn't be misused.
The aid as configured in the letter has been endorsed by Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Arab American Institute. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is backing it so long as such money is directed toward specific projects.
Any such funds will have to pass through strict procedures laid out in the Palestinian Anti-Terror Act designed to ensure no money ends up in the hands of terrorist groups.