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The Palestinian Authority's payment of Hamas salaries on Wednesday - the day PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad told American congressmen there would be no reconciliation with Hamas - was nothing less than a "slap in the face," said Eric Cantor, a Republican congressman from Virginia.
"It was quite an awakening, if not a slap in the face, for our members this morning to wake up and read in your paper that Fayad and the PA have been paying some of the Hamas militias," Cantor, heading a delegation of 19 Republican congressmen, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Cantor, the only Republican Jewish member of the US House of Representatives, said that Fayad had told the delegation something entirely different 24 hours before the story appeared. "He assured us that there was no attempt at reconciliation with Hamas, that there would be no remarriage with the terrorist organization - those were almost the exact words out of Prime Minister Fayad's mouth," Cantor said.
The Virginia congressman said that the delegation, in Israel for six days meeting top leaders, had told Fayad "very strongly" that "the US will not support a PA that has as part of its coalition a terrorist organization. I think [President George W. Bush] has made that clear, and I think our Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] did, as well."
Fayad's aides have called the salary payments the result of a "computer error." Cantor, who is the No. 3-ranking Republican in the House, also raised some question marks about the international conference that President George W. Bush is trying to put together in the fall to promote the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.
"I'm very concerned about the expectations surrounding such a conference," Cantor said. "I believe that it is wise for us to stick to the sequential nature of the original road map, and the vision of our president in insisting that any Palestinian state wait for the Palestinians to denounce terrorist violence, to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and to recognize all former agreements entered into by the PA. For me, calling for a regional conference at this point - without demonstrable evidence that those prerequisites are taking place - may cause an elevation of expectations that could be damaging."
Cantor vowed that when he returned to Washington, he would "insist and make certain" that the US was "not asserting undue pressure on Israel, and not trying to impose any solution on Israel. It is always a risk a when you bring in other countries to determine Israel's fate. Israel knows what it needs to secure its border and defend its people."
Regarding the proposed $20 billion US arms sale to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf countries, Cantor said that he was waiting to see the details of the sale, but that "it is first and foremost a priority that Israel maintains its superior qualitative military edge." What this means, the congressman said, is that Israel must have the ability "to maintain and acquire weapons that exceed the capability" of those being sold to the Arab states.
The delegation's trip is sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), an independent, nonprofit charitable organization affiliated with the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee. In addition to the Republican group, the AIEF is bringing a group of some 20 Democratic congressmen, headed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, to Israel on Sunday, meaning that nearly 10 percent of the House will have been to Israel within two weeks.