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Administration Suggests $20 Million in Aid Will Help Palestinian Reformers

The Bush administration is lobbying Congress to approve a plan to give $20 million to the Palestinian Authority ahead of Palestinian presidential elections — or at least, not to oppose the aid. The State Department can give the direct aid to Palestinian leaders without a congressional vote, as it did a year ago, but support from Capitol Hill is seen as politically important.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is one of the most vocal critics of the plan, and his support for the president’s other legislative initiatives is crucial.

In the week since the administration first proposed the plan to congressional leaders, Bush administration officials have suggested a number of proposals that might appease DeLay and other opponents.

Delay’s camp is confident the administration will not pick a major fight with the majority leader over $20 million.

“Before we send money to the Palestinian Authority, there needs to be reforms attached to that,” said Stuart Roy, a DeLay spokesman.

Traditionally, Jewish groups and other pro-Israel activists have opposed giving aid directly to the Palestinian Authority, concerned about a history of corruption and terrorist financing.

But with the death of P.A. President Yasser Arafat and the prospect of more moderate leaders, many suggest it makes sense for the United States to support potential Palestinian reformers.

Even if the plan is implemented, it remains unclear where the funds would go.

President Bush wants to ensure smooth elections to choose a replacement for Arafat, whom Washington shunned because of his ties to terrorism.

In meetings in the Middle East this week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell highlighted the Palestinian Authority’s financial needs, saying he would work with congressional leaders to try to get the assistance.

The diplomatic “Quartet” behind the “road map” peace plan — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — also pledged to provide funding for the Palestinian elections.

“This is the time to assist them in holding a good, solid election on the ninth of January,” Powell said Monday in Jericho, where he met with Palestinian leaders.

Still, the money may be for broader budgetary help than for elections — for instance, to help the Palestinian Authority meet its payroll.

William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, spoke last week to congressional opponents of the funding, including Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), and suggested aid to the Palestinians could come in forms other than cash.

“The congressman had been first given to understand that large amounts of cash were going to the leaders of the Palestinian Authority,” said Lynne Weil, Lantos’ spokeswoman. “But there was no specific plan as to how it was going to be channeled, who it was going to.”

A program that would allow the Palestinian Authority to repay debts to Israel, freeing up funds to facilitate elections, likely would enjoy more support from American Jewish officials and congressional supporters of Israel.

One effort on Capitol Hill, a letter orchestrated by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) in support of the Bush administration’s plan, has stalled. The letter would have sought stringent controls to promote fiscal transparency and prevent misuse of funds.

“Our inclination is to support the administration,” Ackerman said. “But the administration doesn’t seem to have its act together now and we want to make sure we know what they are doing before we agree with them.”

Ackerman said he would prefer that the money be used for P.A. elections or to pay off P.A. debts to Israel, such as an outstanding $20 million electric bill. He said he is more inclined to back direct aid than in the past, now that Arafat, who led a famously corrupt regime, is dead.

Israel’s annual aid appropriation from the United States — close to $2.2 billion in military aid and $360 million in economic assistance — passed Congress on Saturday.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza traditionally receive about $75 million from the United States. Rather than going directly to the Palestinian Authority, the aid traditionally has been doled out to NGOs 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 a waiver in the Foreign Assistance Act allows for spending of up to $25 million for “unanticipated contingencies.” The $20 million being proposed is seen as more of a symbolic gesture of support for the emerging leadership than real aid for the economy.

Some Jewish leaders already have come out in support of the Bush plan.

“We believe the administration has the correct policy, as stated by the president,” a coalition of some 70 Jewish leaders wrote this week to Condoleezza Rice, congratulating her on her nomination as secretary of state in the next Bush administration. “Although you enter office with a myriad of pressing problems, we also believe that additional time and political capital devoted to this issue will bring positive results.”

The letter, signed by leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements as well as several major philanthropists and past chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, cited U.S. assistance to the Palestinians ahead of elections as a priority.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that often takes the lead on questions of aid to the Palestinians, has not expressed itself directly on the proposal.

“We are hopeful that with the election of new leadership and fundamental reform of the Palestinian Authority, as called for by the president in his June 24, 2002, Rose Garden speech and outlined in the road map, that there will be an opportunity for Palestinians to rejuvenate the economy and begin to build a civil society,” AIPAC spokesman Andrew Schwartz said in response to JTA queries.

Some Jewish leaders suggested the plan was a done deal, and focused attention on ensuring the aid was given with oversight and accountability.

While there has not been vocal opposition to the plan in the Jewish community, there also has not been the same widespread support as there was for last year’s aid disbursement, when another $20 million was deposited in P.A. coffers when Mahmoud Abbas took over briefly as prime minister and sparked hopes for a revival of peace talks. Abbas is the frontrunner to be elected president in January.

“You’d like to think all American Jewish groups would get behind the president and the prime minister at this very important hour,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

But some noted that Congress has reasons to be wary.

“We don’t want to go back to the period where money pours in and it is used and misused,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “That’s what Congress is saying.”

DeLay’s position, as both the second-ranking Republican in the House and one of Israel’s most vocal backers, has forced the Bush administration to tread carefully when discussing direct aid to the Palestinians.

A U.S. official said the State Department reached out to DeLay and other lawmakers this year because they were chastised for not doing so sufficiently last year.

The official said State Department aides touted the success of last year’s aid package. While hopes for a peace deal under Abbas never materialized, there were positive steps.

“There weren’t strings attached, but there were enough people on the ground to make sure the money wasn’t going in the wrong pockets,” the official said.

Jewish groups have been walking a tightrope on the issue.

On the one hand, they recognize the need to support emerging Palestinian leaders perceived as more moderate than Arafat.

But they remain concerned that permissible uses for the money have not been spelled out explicitly and that oversight mechanisms have not been established. Without those caveats, Jewish leaders said they feel uncomfortable publicly backing the plan.

Jewish groups on the left and right of the political spectrum have felt freer to speak than those in the center.

In a statement Monday, Americans for Peace Now praised Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for their efforts and took a swipe at DeLay, implying his hard-line views may actually exacerbate terrorism.

“Tom DeLay may say that he is a friend of Israel, but his actions indicate otherwise,” said Debra DeLee, APN’s president and CEO.

“No real friend of Israel would try to block President Bush from attempting to end Israeli-Palestinian violence,” she said. “Nor would a real friend of Israel seek to deny Palestinians an opportunity to exercise their democratic rights in elections that could provide some much needed stability in the region.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, opposed the aid plan, noting that Abbas was Arafat’s deputy for 40 years and co-founded the Fatah movement, which has been linked to numerous terrorist attacks during the intifada.

“There should be no increase in aid to a terrorist regime that has not fulfilled its obligations according to Oslo,” Klein said.

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