Congress holds up $150m. in aid to PA

US House demands clarification of how money will be spent; move only binding on $50 million of the aid.

US Congress 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
US Congress 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Congress announced a hold on aid to the Palestinians late Tuesday, further complicating US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table despite raging Gaza violence. Rice promised while in the region this week that American aid was on the way to help the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. But the tie-up in Congress points to the many obstacles with which the administration must contend to make progress on its policy aiming for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, has placed a hold on $150 million in economic assistance to the PA until the State Department provides further clarification of how the money will be dispensed and until it has certified that a single treasury account for the funds has been created, among other requirements. Last week, US President George W. Bush exercised a waiver allowing funds to go to the PA in the first place, necessitated by congressional concerns that such money could wind up in the hands of terrorists. Earlier this week, Rice announced that she had also signed a waiver allowing the full allocation of US military aid to flow to Egypt despite Congress's criticism that the country wasn't doing enough to stop smuggling into Gaza, as well as other concerns. In the latest hang-up, Lowey also expressed displeasure with PA President Mahmoud Abbas's suspension of negotiations with Israel. "President Abbas's recent statements cast doubt on his willingness to take the steps necessary for peace with Israel," she said. Since Lowey's hold on the allocation of the funds was announced, adding to the pressure the US has been applying on the PA to resume the talks, Abbas has indicated his willingness to return to the negotiating table. Lowey spokesman Matt Dennis said his office welcomed the move, but added that the main issue remained the State Department's provision of the requested information. The hold is only binding on $50m. of the money slated for the Palestinians, because relevant spending legislation only requires certification of funds over $100m. The State Department has indicated it is working to certify that additional money, which could happen in the coming days. Though the hold is otherwise nonbinding, the administration usually respects holds applied by appropriations committee members. "We are working to address the remaining requirements laid out for the cash transfer and expect to provide this information to Congress shortly," a State Department official told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday, adding that "President Abbas has reiterated his support for the peace process. His comment today again underscores that commitment." Other members of Congress also weighed in on the situation in Israel Wednesday, overwhelmingly passing a nonbinding House resolution condemning Hamas's continued rocket fire on Israel. The international community, including the European Union, has issued such condemnations alongside sharp criticism of Israel for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in counterattacks. But Congress focused almost all of its denunciations on Hamas for firing the rockets at innocent Israelis from among its own civilian population. "For now, the attacks are continuing unabated, and they are destroying what hopes remain of Israeli-Palestinian peace. That is why this resolution unambiguously recognizes and reaffirms Israel's sovereign right to defend its citizens and territory," declared Howard Berman, acting chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a floor speech in Congress Wednesday. He pointed to the support Hamas was receiving from Iran and Syria and called on Egypt to crack down on the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. He also said, "As we show our support with this resolution for the people of Israel, we also express our sympathy with the overwhelming majority of Gazans who only want a decent life but whose terrorist leaders have contemptuously sentenced them to mayhem." Israeli Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor welcomed the passage of the resolution, praising it for recognizing Israel's right to act in self-defense, as well as the strong support Israel enjoys from America.