Administration Presses Israel As Congress Acts on Aid to P.A.

The battle between the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress over how much to push the Palestinians and Israel intensified this week. Just hours after Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who was in Washington on Tuesday, heard clear calls for a crackdown on settlement outposts during meetings at the State Department and White House, Congress put restrictions on aid to the Palestinians.

In approving President Bush’s request for $200 million in aid for the Palestinians, the House Appropriations Committee also removed President Bush’s right to waive tough conditions on delivering that aid.

The removal of the waiver means that the White House must run each dollar of the $200 million through congressional oversight.

The House committee, in approving Bush’s overall $81 billion supplemental request for the war on terror, including funds for the Iraq war, on Tuesday, also set aside $5 million for an audit of aid to the Palestinians.

The White House says it needs the $200 million now to bolster P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas in his peace efforts.

While Congress is trying to put restrictions on aid, the Bush administration is pressing Israel to move quickly to dismantle illegal outposts.

The simultaneous developments illustrated the differing emphases of the administration and Congress.

The issue of the outposts came up in a meeting here between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Shalom on Tuesday, the same day that the Israeli government was rocked by an internal report alleging its complicity in illegal settlement activity.

“It’s long been our policy that unauthorized outposts be removed,” a State Department statement said on Tuesday.

“We hope that this comprehensive report which was commissioned by Prime Minister Sharon will be used by the government of Israel to meet its previous pledges on stopping construction of unauthorized outposts and removing existing ones.”

Israel’s former state prosecutor Talia Sasson’s report, released this week, not only confirmed charges that Israel has been slow to crack down on unauthorized West Bank outposts as required by the U.S.-led peace “road map” — it also indicated that some officials had knowingly helped with their expansion.

“These actions seriously undermine the rule of law and democratic running of the State of Israel,” Sasson, whose probe was commissioned by Sharon, told reporters Wednesday.

“I recommend the transfer of these findings to the attorney-general to determine whether there is room for legal action,” she said.

According to Sasson, the Housing Ministry, military and immigration officials have funded or facilitated construction of around 105 outposts. Of these, 54 were built on land that did not belong to Israel, including 15 built on Palestinian land.

She recommended that the Cabinet deal directly with outposts, rather than delegating the issue to various government ministries.

Sharon’s office declined comment on the report pending a decision by Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz on whether to press charges. Channel 2 television, citing Justice Ministry sources, said that only minor officials, if any, would face prosecution.

Recent government shake-ups appeared to work in the prime minister’s favor. Many of the outposts cited by Sasson were erected under former Housing Minister Effi Eitam, whose rightist National Religious Party quit the coalition last year.

Eitam’s successor, Isaac Herzog of the center-left Labor Party, was quick to distance himself from the scandal.

“Since I took over, measures have been made. We formed a committee to ensure not one penny is transferred to this kind of outpost,” Herzog told Israel Radio.

“We will study the report. If there is a need to transfer authority from one area to another, we will transfer it.”

Under the road map, Israel is obligated to dismantle any West Bank outposts put up by settlers since March 2001. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said Washington continued to expect full implementation of this clause.

In Washington, senior Israeli officials at the meeting suggested that Rice was impatient with Israel, especially given Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ successes in reducing rocket attacks and in destroying some arms-smuggling tunnels. The sense was that Abbas was meeting his Sharm el Sheik summit commitments, and Israel was not.

But a Sharon adviser told JTA there would be delays.

“The prime minister is busy pushing through disengagement,” said the adviser, requesting anonymity and referring to withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank planned for this summer. “No one is looking for more points of friction with the settlers.”

According to the adviser, Sharon’s turnaround from champion of settlement in the West Bank and Gaza to the first Israeli leader to order evacuations from the territories had won him enough international goodwill to weather the Sasson storm.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Shalom acknowledged some progress by Abbas, but still wanted to see him dismantle the terrorist groups.

As it stands now, the congressional legislation that includes aid for the Palestinians omits the president’s right to waive oversight conditions for national security concerns; such waivers routinely have featured in past aid packages.

It is not clear when the whole House will vote on the aid, and whether there is room for changes.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded the congressional moves.

“There is an historic opportunity for progress at the moment,” said Josh Block, AIPAC’s spokesman. “AIPAC is supportive of aid to the Palestinians with the right oversight to ensure that such aid is used properly to help the Palestinian people and advance America’s interests.”

But the Israel Policy Forum disagreed.

Seymour Reich, the president of the IPF, said the amendment countered the new goodwill between the Palestinians and the United States.

“We are particularly disturbed that the committee has eliminated the traditional presidential waiver,” he said. “Even in the Arafat era, a president could waive conditions on aid to the Palestinians on national security grounds.”

Meanwhile, seven U.S. lawmakers proposed a bill that would cut aid to the West Bank and Gaza until the Palestinian Authority took steps toward peace.

“The P.A. has a history of supporting terror and stalling the peace process,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), the bill’s sponsor. The bill would require the president to inform Congress that the Palestinian leadership is not tainted by violence and has rebuked Palestinian violence and incitement before the money would be distributed.

While the measure is unlikely to garner much support, it indicates the mood among some on Capitol Hill about the need to move cautiously with the Palestinians.

(JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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