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Congress: aid to Palestinian state conditional

WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (JTA) — U.S. lawmakers are working to deny any American funds to support the establishment of a Palestinian state until new leadership is established through democratic elections. According to information obtained by JTA, a resolution setting conditions for such funding is expected to be included in the appropriations process being debated this month on Capitol Hill. Once certain conditions are met, however, the resolution calls for substantial economic assistance to the Palestinian state. The requirements Congress is seeking to set for the new state closely mirror what Bush outlined for a new Palestinian state in his June 24 speech, when he implicitly called for the ouster of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He said he envisioned such a state, with significant reforms, to be created within three years. But the congressional move is based on concerns among pro-Israel lawmakers that Bush’s speech did not include specific parameters for Palestinian reform and did not detail what it would take for the United States to recognize Palestinian statehood. Specifically, proponents of the resolution want the new state to prove a commitment to peaceful coexistence with Israel, to have a constitution, to combat terrorism and to establish a new security force. In essence, the bill, which sources say has considerable backing among lawmakers, provides a carrot and a stick for Palestinian reform. While it demands new leadership and reform, the amendment goes on to say that once those conditions are met, lawmakers believe that the United States should provide substantial economic assistance and encourage outside assistance to the Palestinian state. It also says the United States should promote democracy and the rule of law in the new state and promote regional economic cooperation and integration. Like most bills on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the measure includes a waiver, which allows the president to sidestep the conditions if he deems it in the country’s national security interest. Presidents have used the waiver in the past to delay enactment of legislation benefiting Israel. Such has been the case repeatedly with the Israel Embassy Act, which required moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is backing the measure. “Congress is in the process of considering potential legislation that would codify President Bush’s June 24 speech into law,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for AIPAC. “The president called for an end to Palestinian terrorism and a new Palestinian leadership not tainted by corruption, as well as financial transparency and judicial integrity.” The language is not set in stone, as congressional aides continue to debate the pros and cons of this type of resolution. The new language has also not received universal support from pro-Israel activists. One American Jewish leader said there is concern that such a bill would anger the Bush administration. “There are mixed feelings about this, whether Congress can impose this on the administration and whether it crosses the line,” said the Jewish leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is the traditional debate every time Congress tries to make policy for the administration.” The State Department has been consistently concerned about Congress tying the administration’s hands on the Israeli-Palestinian issue by proposing laws that would impose sanctions on the Palestinians. A State Department spokesperson had no immediate comment, saying the proposed language would have to be reviewed once it is officially introduced. The new language replaces a bill lawmakers had been touting, the Arafat Accountability Act, that would have denied visas to Palestinian Authority officials, based on the belief that they have violated signed agreements with the United States and Israel. That legislation, formerly promoted by AIPAC but now considered dead, would have restricted the travel of Palestinian officials at the United Nations, frozen the American assets of Palestinian leaders and downgraded the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Pro-Israel lawmakers and AIPAC believe Bush’s speech made the Arafat act moot, and that it would be more important to ensure that the goals laid out by the White House were obtained. The resolution expected this week would most likely be part of the annual foreign operations spending bill, which is only good for one year, but is often used by lawmakers to attach provisions on aid. Congressional sources say that alternatively, it could be included in a spending bill on State Department operations or as a stand-alone resolution. A Jewish official said that once any provision on aid to a Palestinian state is put in, it will be difficult to remove in years ahead. The language would not affect the annual $75 million in humanitarian aid that the West Bank and Gaza receive from the United States Agency for International Development or the $50 million in additional aid the president has requested for the Palestinian territories. That aid, along with the $3 billion annual military and economic aid for Israel, and the extra $200 million for the Jewish state the president has requested, are all expected to be included in the foreign operations bills.