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Lawmakers, Israel Backers Support Direct Aid to Palestinian Authority

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The Bush administration’s decision to send aid directly to the Palestinian Authority is getting the thumbs-up from a diverse assortment of pro-Israel activists and lawmakers — the clearest sign of support yet for the White House’s intensified engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The administration signed off Tuesday on a $20 million payment to the Palestinian Authority, to be used for humanitarian projects.

It is the first time direct aid has been given to the Palestinian leadership, and sources close to the White House describe it as an acknowledgment of recent P.A. efforts to crack down on terrorism.

It also is an attempt to shore up the new P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

“It’s a one-time deal and it’s supposed to send a message,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip traditionally has been doled out through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

Numerous laws over the years have blocked direct U.S. aid to the Palestinians, but Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Tuesday signed a waiver in the Foreign Assistance Act that allows for spending of up to $25 million for “unanticipated contingencies.”

In making the historic move, the White House has received support from Israel, a majority of the American Jewish community and a vast number of pro-Israel lawmakers.

Until now, many supporters of Israel had opposed direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, saying it was impossible to ensure that the money wouldn’t be funneled to terrorist organizations.

Just last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it would reconsider its opposition if the Palestinian Authority dismantled terrorist groups.

Now supporters of the decision on direct aid, including AIPAC, say the shift is a result of events on the ground and confidence in the Bush administration’s engagement in the region.

“There is a clear understanding in this community that Palestinian prosperity is essential to Israeli security,” said Rebecca Dinar, AIPAC’s spokeswoman. “Our only concern is that the money is not used to foment terror.”

Supporters say recent actions taken by Abbas and his security and financial chiefs to thwart terrorist groups and institute financial controls paved the way for the aid.

The final step was Abbas’ resignation Tuesday from the central committee of Fatah, the PLO’s main political party, though efforts were underway Wednesday in Palestinian circles to patch up the rift. The United States defines a wing of Fatah, the Al-Aksa Brigade, as a terrorist group.

Additionally, analysts believe that by directing funds to the Palestinian Authority, the administration will help Abbas to replicate some of the humanitarian programs currently offered by Hamas and other terrorist groups. Those programs bring the groups both popular support among Palestinians and financial backing from Europe and the Arab world.

The Bush administration is expected to continue to push Europe and the Arabs to cut off aid to such groups and to shun P.A. President Yasser Arafat, whom the administration considers tainted by terrorism.

While the Bush administration is acting within its discretion in allocating the funds, the decision to give the money without direct congressional approval angered some on Capitol Hill, including many who support the initiative.

The White House did get the blessing of congressional leaders before moving forward, but rank-and-file legislators were not given the opportunity to weigh in.

“Everything they are doing is within their prerogative; the only question is whether they are doing it in a wise fashion,” one Democratic congressional staffer said. “I think the sense is that with a policy decision of this magnitude, it would be worthwhile to have the required amount of debate in Congress to put these changes into law.”

Members of the Conference of Presidents, meeting with lawmakers Wednesday, were armed with AIPAC talking points about the role Congress should play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The list, which JTA obtained, recommends “making clear that Palestinian performance in stopping terror is essential for further progress” and “ensuring that aid to the Palestinians be provided only with iron-clad safeguards so that funds go only for designated purposes.”

Most legislators are expected to support the aid decision but several are speaking out against the plan, or are seeking to impose conditions on the aid.

“A cease-fire in which the firing hasn’t ceased does not deserve to be rewarded,” he said in a statement. “That’s giving money for nothing in return.”

“That means the United States would retain authority to withhold those funds should the State Department determine that the Palestinians have participated in or supported acts of international terrorism during the previous three months,” Otter wrote. “Such a common-sense approach to accountability would provide a powerful incentive for the Palestinians to behave in a manner consistent with efforts to discourage violence.”

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