Direct Aid to Palestinians Considered

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

President Bush is considering making the high-profile gesture of providing direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, but a decision may not be announced in time for today's Oval Office meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas because of resistance on Capitol Hill, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Congressional officials believe the State Department provided assurances that the recently approved $148 million in emergency aid to the Palestinians would not be provided directly to the Palestinian Authority, but through nongovernmental organizations. The White House may instead tap some of the $55 million in Palestinian aid that has not yet been spent from the 2005 budget, officials said.

Palestinian officials have sought a clear signal of support for Abbas from the president during the visit. Palestinians have given up on the idea of winning commitments from Bush in the form of a letter, as Israel received a year ago. But, at the start of a news conference with Abbas this morning, Bush plans to reiterate statements he has made calling for a viable Palestinian state, most recently during a speech in Belgium in February.

Abbas also will tell Bush that he does not yet have the capacity to combat militant groups, as Israel has demanded, and that he needs assistance to build up his security forces. Abbas is also coming with maps to demonstrate to Bush that Israel is quickly choking off the possibility of a viable Palestinian state through its settlement expansion and construction of a security barrier.

Palestinian officials want to move quickly to final negotiations and are wary that Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer is a ruse to freeze the process for years to come. The Bush administration largely supports Israel's demand that the Palestinians first build up democratic institutions and combat militant groups, although Bush is expected to not insist that the Palestinian Authority disarm militant groups until after Palestinian elections this summer, officials said.

The administration has only twice before provided direct funding to the Palestinian Authority, most recently $20 million in December, after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. That money, under an agreement with Congress, went to pay outstanding bills owed to an Israeli utility company. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials say that move freed up needed funds for other uses in Palestinian areas.

Making the rounds on Capitol Hill yesterday, Abbas complained about congressional resistance to direct funding to the Authority. He noted to lawmakers that the Authority has reorganized its finance ministry, which is headed by Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official.

Speaking at a forum in Washington yesterday on the peace process, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Kidwa said that "we do recognize that we have a serious problem with Congress." Alluding to the clout of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington -- this week the American Israel Public Affairs Committee held a high-profile conference attended by 5,000 people -- Kidwa asked: "Is it really allowed under American law for a foreign entity to endlessly lobby Congress to achieve certain political goals?"

In the emergency spending bill, the administration requested $200 million, but lawmakers gave $50 million to Israel for the construction of high-speed terminals at border crossings and $2 million to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America; an additional $5 million must be spent on an independent examination of the authority's accounting procedures. Kidwa called it a "a very strange cocktail of provisions."

Kidwa asserted that Israel has not coordinated with Palestinians over the Gaza withdrawal. But Israelis make the same complaint. An Israeli official said Palestinians yesterday canceled for the second time in a month a meeting at which Israel was to hand over detailed blueprints of the water and sewage lines in Gaza.

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