The Palestinian campaign for statehood, waged at this year's United Nations General Assembly, has not sat well with Washington, and now some members of Congress are doing something about it: They are placing holds on parts of the $500 million in annual assistance the Palestinians receive from the US.
The congressional moves come as the Palestinian drive for international recognition advanced Wednesday when the executive board of UNESCO, the UN Education, Science, and Cultural Organization, voted in Paris to recommend to the agency’s 193 member states that an independent Palestine be admitted as a full member.
The Obama administration, which opposes the UN statehood bid and vows to veto it in the Security Council, nevertheless is against any cutoff of Palestinian aid. While in Israel this week to meet with his Israeli counterpart and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said “now is not the time” to withhold funding that provides “benefits” to both the Palestinians and to Israel.
There is irony in Congressional action aimed at punishing the Palestinians for steps the US does not like, some analysts say. The move is being spearheaded by members of Congress who consider themselves among Israel’s best friends. But even Israeli officials have argued for maintaining the aid, much of which goes to train and support Palestinian law enforcement forces and to build up the Palestinian justice system.
“These members of Congress are going far to the right of the ruling coalition in Israel by placing these holds, and are actually undermining it,” says Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street, a Washington pro-Israel advocacy group that favors a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
US aid to the Palestinians falls into three categories: direct budgetary assistance, humanitarian assistance administered through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and security assistance. “Holds,” which are a means usually at committee chairs’ disposal for stalling funding or other measures, have been placed on all three lines of Palestinian aid.
Most attention has been heaped on Republican members of the House who are reported to have placed the holds, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, Kay Granger (R) of Texas.
But a number of Democratic members of the House have also spoken in favor of suspending aid to the Palestinians over their statehood bid, including Reps. Gary Ackerman and Nita Lowey, both of New York.
“There may need to be a total cutoff of all aid to the Palestinians for pursuing this course of action which is very dangerous and ill-advised,” Representative Ackerman said recently.
But even groups like J Street that oppose the UN statehood bid and advocate a return to direct negotiations say it is halting aid that could prove to be dangerous – as much for Israel as for anyone.
Mr. Williams calls the hold on security assistance “shocking” because of the impact it is likely to have on Israeli security. “You are really whittling down the ability of the Palestinian security forces to cooperate with the Israelis,” he says.
The holds placed on Palestinian aid affect funding approved in fiscal year 2011, but a number of measures are also under consideration for restricting funding to the Palestinians in fiscal year 2012.
The hold on the security funding was reportedly placed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A House Appropriations measure would restrict funds if the Palestinians pursue their UN statehood bid or do not return to direct negotiations with the Israelis. A Senate measure calls for cutting off funding if the Palestinians achieve any form of enhanced UN membership – but includes a waiver Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could exercise if she determined that maintaining the aid was in the national security interest.
The Palestinian bid for full UNESCO membership risks putting the UN agency back in US crosshairs, where it was for decades until President George W. Bush decided to reinstate the US as a member in 2003.
A UNESCO vote on admitting a sovereign Palestine is expected later this month, but Representative Granger lost no time in announcing Wednesday that a “yes” vote would jeopardize US funding of the organization.
But the Palestinians’ strategy, according to several regional experts, is to build up international legitimacy by seeking full membership in a series of international agencies – with full UN membership as the ultimate prize.