Congress puts stranglehold on Palestinian aid

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Article Summary
Key lawmakers are incensed with terrorism support and statehood bid.

Congress is blocking almost $160 million in US assistance as the Palestinians prepare to once again take their statehood bid to the UN Security Council later this month.

The money has been on hold since last fall as key lawmakers seek to convince the Palestinians to abandon their unilateral effort to restart stalled peace negotiations through international pressure. House foreign aid appropriations subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, told Al-Monitor she had no immediate plans to release the aid as her panel prepares to unveil its spending priorities for the next fiscal year.

"Right now we're not giving any money to the Palestinians," Granger told Al-Monitor last week. "And there's nothing that I expect to do [to change that]."

The United States has given the Palestinians some $5 billion in bilateral economic and security assistance since the mid-1990s, making them one of the largest beneficiaries of US aid per capita, with $364 million more requested for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The Palestinians say the assistance helps the Palestinian Authority (PA) pay its bills and provide security in the West Bank.

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"We are aware of the hold on $159 [million] by Congress," the Palestinian Liberation Organization mission in Washington told Al-Monitor in an emailed statement. "We informed the administration of the grave consequences of such an irresponsible action. We understand that the administration is working with them to try to release the money. There is no reason for them to keep using these futile tactics to exert pressure on the Palestinians."

Granger's hold follows PA President Mahmoud Abbas' assertion in September that the Palestinians were no longer bound by the Oslo agreements of the 1990s. Abbas has drafted a resolution condemning Israel's settlement expansion, a possible prelude to a French-backed international peace conference starting this summer.

US lawmakers are particularly worried that the Obama administration might abandon its past opposition to "one-sided" resolutions, with 394 House members — more than 90% of all House members — signing on to a letter from Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., to the president urging him to stay the course. Separately, two members of the House Armed Services Committee, Reps. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., and Gwen Graham, D-Fla., introduced a resolution on April 15 urging Obama to veto any Security Council resolution that "inserts the Council into the peace process, unilaterally recognizes a Palestinian state, makes declarations concerning Israeli controlled territories, or dictates terms and a timeline for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

Lawmakers are also increasingly taking the Palestinians to task for their perceived failure to thoroughly condemn a spate of attacks that have killed 28 Israelis and two visiting Americans over the past six months. Allegations that the Palestinians are still paying stipends to the family members of deceased or imprisoned attackers have been particularly grating. 

"We helped them when there were some real peace talks. And the Israelis are the ones that asked us to help them, because they said, when you come to the bargaining table … and they're in such dire straits, then that's really a problem," Granger told Al-Monitor. "And so we did help them. They walked away. There's no serious peace talks going on. And some things we've asked of them, they haven't complied. And then there's a great deal of concern over the incitement language, and so we have no plans to [restart] the funding."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., explicitly put the Obama administration on notice last week that it must do more to stop the alleged payments. Royce also has a hold on Palestinian aid, according to Palestinian reports.

"For some years now, you have the sense where basically there's been an inducement to pay assassins to seek out innocent people and kill them," Royce told Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson at an April 13 hearing on the State Department's budget request for the 2017 fiscal year. "I want us to use our considerable leverage to end that practice."

Royce said he had been led to believe that the payments were being "phased out," but later found out that the PA had simply transferred that responsibility to the PLO. Patterson said she did not mean to mislead Congress when she testified previously that the payments were ending.

"No, I didn't know. What I was basing that on was my own discussions with Palestinian members who said they had been phasing it out," she told Royce. "I totally agree with you that this is an egregious practice."

The State Department opposes an outright end to all assistance, arguing that the PA plays a key security role and that US aid is "not fungible" and goes to debt payments, not support for terrorism.

"We continue to believe that US assistance to the Palestinian Authority has played a valuable role in promoting stability and prosperity not just for the Palestinians, but for Israel as well," a State Department official told Al-Monitor. "This assistance has supported security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians, which has been instrumental in preserving security in the West Bank and Israel, and reducing threats to Israelis and Palestinians alike."

The department, however, notified Congress in the fall that it was withholding $80 million from its $370 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year, Al-Monitor reported at the time, blaming "unhelpful actions" by the Palestinians.

"Rest assured that this will be a topic of conversation with the rest of the donor community," Patterson told Royce at the hearing. "We see the Europeans and other donors all the time, and rest assured that your points will be conveyed with our full concurrence."

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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Found in: west bank, us aid, terrorist attacks, palestinian authority, palestinian-israeli conflict, oslo accord, mahmoud abbas, congress

Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor's Washington Editor. He was previously Congressional Correspondent from 2014 through May 2017 and most recently before that headed up The Hill's Global Affairs blog. On Twitter: @JPecquet_ALM, Email: jpecquet@al-monitor.com.

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