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Palestinians Face Large Cuts in U.S. Aid

Mitchell Plitnick

WASHINGTON, Sep 14 2011 (IPS) - With a vote on the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations scheduled for next week, the Barack Obama administration has made its opposition to any upgrade of Palestinian status in the world body quite clear.

What is less clear is precisely how the United States will respond to the Palestinian action, as indications from the administration and Congress point in different directions.

After months of speculation, the Obama administration confirmed its intention to veto any Palestinian resolution at the United Nations Security Council.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Sep. 7, “The U.S. opposes a move in New York by the Palestinians to try to establish a state that can only be achieved through negotiations. So yes, if something comes to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. will veto.”

The Obama administration has also been working both to dissuade the Palestinians from pursuing this course and to persuade other countries, especially in Europe, to vote against any upgrade in Palestinian status in the U.N. General Assembly.

The State Department, however, expressed strong reluctance to threaten the financial aid – totaling 550.4 million dollars in 2011, with 513.4 million requested for 2012 – to the Palestinians as a response to their U.N. initiative. Nuland said on Aug. 22 that, “We have not chosen to use our humanitarian aid in such a fashion. As you know, it is designed to help the Palestinian people and support their humanitarian needs.”

Prominent members of Congress have taken a different view, and the Obama administration has warned the Palestinians that Congress, which ultimately controls all funding of foreign aid, may take its own action.

Congress, under heavy lobbying pressure from pro-Israel groups advocating support for Israeli policies, is usually a hostile place for the Palestinians. After Democrats lost a seat in Congress from New York they had held for many decades, in a race where support for Israel was a central issue, it is even more so today.

Speaking at a hearing of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs on the future of aid to the Palestinians, Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said that, “By providing the Palestinians with 2.5 billion dollars over the last five years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behaviour… Palestinian leaders are not going to make the tough decisions and change their ways unless compelled to.”

“If progress is to be made, the administration must stop looking for ways to circumvent requirements that the PA must meet … before they can receive U.S. aid,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen recently introduced the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act, which she explained in an opinion piece in a Florida newspaper was largely designed to cut off “U.S. contributions to any U.N. entity that grants membership or any other upgraded status to the Palestinian observer mission”.

Rep. Steve Chabot, chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, was even blunter: “If the Palestinians continue on their current path, the question before this Congress will not be what portion of our aid will be cut, but rather what portion will remain.”

Ros-Lehtinen and Chabot, both Republicans, also criticised President Obama’s handling of this issue. But members of Obama’s own party are also lining up to push for cutting aid to the Palestinians.

Rep. Howard Berman, a long-serving Democrat and former chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said: “Congress has been very generous in its support of the Palestinian Authority’s worthy efforts to build institutions and the economy in the West Bank… Therefore, I believe it is appropriate to point out that should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years, will likely be terminated. And that could well result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.”

On Monday, four prominent Democrats also introduced a bill in the House that would “prohibit Foreign Military Financing program assistance to countries that vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state in the absence of a negotiated border agreement between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

This is in addition to several other bills which, in part or whole, sanction the Palestinians, the U.N. or countries voting in favour of the Palestinian initiative.

While Obama may be reluctant to see aid to the Palestinians cut, analysts tell IPS that, given that the president is up for re-election in a little over a year, is not doing well in approval polls and has reaped only political losses from his attempts to bring about a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he is not willing to get into a fight with Congress on this issue and prefers to minimise his involvement in Israel/Palestine peacemaking until after the election.

Robert Malley, former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, told IPS: “I think what you’re seeing from the White House is fatigue. Added to that is the political concern about not having another fight with Israel and the Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) in the run-up to the election.”

“But they will be dragged in, as they were in Egypt when the Israeli embassy was stormed (and the United States, at Israel’s request, intervened forcefully with the new Egyptian government and got them to extend their efforts to get six Israeli embassy staff to safety). So they cannot really be out of it, but there is a sense of being fed up and not wanting to take any political risk,” he said.

Aaron Miller, an adviser to six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, told IPS: “U.S. presidents get directly involved (in Arab-Israeli peacemaking) only when there is a sustained crisis or an opportunity presents itself…President Obama is to some degree an exception, but he had no coherent strategy.”

“This is a much-diminished president at a critically important time in the political cycle. There is no reason or driving force for a confrontation with Israel or a high-level failure which would make the administration look weak or incompetent.

“Give the administration a reason that promises to make them look better rather than worse and you might see involvement,” Miller said. “But under any other circumstance, it doesn’t make any sense for (Obama).”

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