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Bill would pull defense aid from nations voting for statehood

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A measure that would withhold military assistance from nations that endorse Palestinian statehood at the United Nations is the latest congressional bid to head off the effort.

The bill introduced Monday in the U.S. House of Representatives by four lawmakers — Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.) — would target dozens of nations that receive assistance ranging from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to billions.

"We won’t allow other countries to vote against our best friend with one hand in the U.N. and come to Congress to seek taxpayer dollars with the other hand," said Israel.

The bill would include a standard presidential national security waiver.

The Obama administration has said that the Palestinian Authority effort to secure statehood recognition this month would set back the prospect for renewed peace talks and has pledged to veto the bid should it come to the Security Council.

The Palestinians may seek an enhanced status short of statehood through the General Assembly, where the United States does not have a veto. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. defense assistance, at $3 billion a year, but other nations receive substantial amounts. Other leading recipients include Egypt ($1.3 billion), Pakistan ($300 million) and Jordan ($200 million).

The bill is the latest in a number of congressional initiatives to threaten repercussions if the Palestinians go ahead with their plan.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a news conference with eight other Republicans to tout her U.N. reform bill, which includes provisions that would cut funding to any U.N. body that enhances the Palestinian status. She called on President Obama to back the initiative.

"We hope and expect better from the administration at this critical time, when the U.N. is poised to severely undermine peace and security by supporting Abu Mazen’s dangerous scheme." Abu Mazen is a byname for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Meanwhile, Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee, is lobbying countries to vote against Palestinian statehood recognition in the United Nations.

"I am contacting as many countries as I can speak with to tell them the U.N. resolution is destructive and awful and will not make peace, it will make peace talks more difficult," Engel told JTA this week.

Engel had just returned from a trip to Israel with top officials from the Caribbean island nations of Grenada and Saint Kitts and Nevis. The officials met there with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Engel, who chaired the Western Hemisphere subcommittee from 2007 to 2011, has cultivated a number of the region’s leaders.

There is at least one congressional effort, spearheaded by J Street, the dovish pro-Israel group, to head off a cut in funding to the Palestinians in case they go ahead with their statehood bid.

Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are seeking additional signatories to their letter to Obama that reiterates congressional opposition to the Palestinian statehood bid, but says punishing the Palestinians would be counterproductive.

"The suspension or ending of U.S. aid could undermine the very foundations of a future Palestinian state, undoing the progress that has been made in recent years toward strengthening the P.A.’s security and governance institutions," it says. "It would increase the likelihood of instability and violence, in turn threatening Israel’s security."

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