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Checkpoint Washington
Posted at 09:59 AM ET, 10/04/2011

Wasting no time in blocking Palestinian aid

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations last month. (Seth Wenig — Associated Press)
Congress had threatened to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority for 2012 if it went ahead with a bid for statehood at the United Nations. But it turns out no one’s waiting until 2012.

In recent days, lawmakers have blocked unspent portions of 2011 aid, to show their unhappiness with the Palestinian move.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how much aid is affected, since different legislators have targeted different pieces of the $500 million in annual U.S. aid. But it appears that both economic aid and support for the Palestinian security forces could be affected.

The Obama administration is holding “intensive consultations” with Congress to try to unfreeze the money, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“U.S. support for Palestinian institution-building is a vital piece of what we’re trying to do here,” she said Monday. “We’re trying to prepare the ground for a successful and stable peace. This money goes to establishing and strengthening the institutions of a future Palestinian state, building a more democratic and stable and secure region.”

The Palestinian government depends heavily on foreign aid to function, so the freeze will hurt — if it continues.

Matt Leffingwell, a spokesman for Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), head of the subcommittee that handles foreign aid, said its hold would affect $200 million in economic aid, but not security assistance.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and some other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were blocking about $192 million in humanitarian assistance and $150 million in security aid, according to his spokesman, Andy Fisher.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, also has put a hold on an undisclosed sum. Her spokesman, Brad Goehner, said the congresswoman wanted more details about the funding and was concerned about the U.N. effort and the recent unity agreement between the two main Palestinian factions.

The lawmakers involved in the holds are all considered supporters of Israel. But ironically, Israeli officials have quietly opposed cutting off Palestinian funds in the past, because of their concern about harming the stability of the Palestinian government, congressional staffers say.

Nuland said the money “is not only in the interest of the Palestinians. It’s in the U.S. interest and it’s also in the Israeli interest.”

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, the lead envoy for the so-called Middle East Quartetthe United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — urged Congress this week to release the funding.

In an interview Monday with BBC Radio 4, Blair said U.S. funding has helped the Palestinian Authority make huge strides economically, and in improving security.

“I still hope at some point that it will be possible to persuade people that this isn’t really a good idea — that even if you’re completely opposed to the Palestinian bid in the United Nations, this is not the right way to respond to it because it’s harming Palestinian people and it’s harming the very things that over the past few years we’ve been most strongly supportive of,” Blair said.

By  |  09:59 AM ET, 10/04/2011

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