Congress conditions Palestinian aid on dropping statehood bid


WASHINGTON (JTA) — A newly passed congressional appropriations bill maintains the level of assistance for Israel while conditioning funds for the Palestinians on them dropping their statehood recognition bid.

An omnibus appropriations bill passed last week and awaiting President Obama’s signature funds assistance to Israel at $3.075 billion, consistent with a 2007 memorandum of understanding that averages such aid at $3 billion annually over 10 years.

The funding was spared from across-the-board cuts toward slashing the deficit.

Funding for Palestinians is also approved by the legislation, but no amounts are specified. Instead, the president must submit specific requests to appropriators in both Houses, allowing Congress greater leverage over how the money is spent.

Furthermore, should the Palestinians gain statehood recognition through any international body in the absence of negotiations, the funding will be suspended, although the president is able to waive the provision.

The Israeli embassy in Washington welcomed the new conditions.

"We view these measures as essential for returning the Palestinians to direct talks without preconditions, as endorsed by the Quartet," said a statement issued Thursday, and referring to the grouping of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his commitment to negotiate all core issues leading to a viable and permanent two-state solution."

The bill, by approving appropriations for the Palestinians — even in the absence of specific figures — effectively lifts holds placed on Palestinian funding because of the Palestinians’ initial bid for statehood recognition launched in September at the United Nations.

The Israeli embassy statement said it "welcomed" this development.

Israel had sent mixed signals over the holds placed on Palestinian aid; on the one hand, Israeli officials sought to send a clear message to the Palestinians that they would be penalized for unilaterally seeking statehood; on the other hand, Israel’s defense establishment sees the Palestinian Authority as critical in keeping the peace in the West Bank.

J Street, which had lobbied against cutting off funds to the Palestinians, also welcomed the bill, saying it "reflects a growing understanding that Israelis and Palestinians alike benefit from both security and humanitarian American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."

The bill also would shut down for at least 90 days the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington should the Palestinians continue to seek unilateral statehood recognition. The president would have to prove the Palestinians were involved in "meaningful" negotiations with Israel in order for the office to reopen.

Americans for Peace Now said that this condition and others undercut the White House’s ability to set national security policy.

"Until now Congress has balanced lashing out at the Palestinians, or scoring points at their expense, with waivers that give the President the flexibility to act to preserve U.S. interests and U.S. national security," Lara Friedman, the group’s legislative director, said in a statement. "In the current climate of political grandstanding, however, Congress appears to have decided that such interests are not always relevant — in this case setting the stage for the ejection of the official representatives of the Palestinians from the U.S., even if such action harms U.S. interests."

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