By Scott Wilson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
JERUSALEM, Jan. 23 -- The Bush administration's effort to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority and its governing Fatah party before critical parliamentary elections this week came under intense criticism Monday from a number of candidates, some of whom charged that the program amounted to illegal interference in the democratic process.
A leader of Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, called for an investigation into whether the $2 million program violated the prohibition against parties receiving funds from foreign sources. U.S. officials involved in the program said it was not meant to favor one party, but the Palestinian public closely identifies the Palestinian Authority with the Fatah movement that runs it.
Candidates from several other parties said the program was an attempt to undermine Hamas in voting scheduled for Wednesday and predicted that it would backfire.
"Every time the United States says it doesn't want Hamas, they boost Hamas," said Mustafa Barghouti, a former presidential candidate who is heading the Independent Palestine candidate list. "Let us do our elections entirely on our own. These interventions run counter to our efforts, and they hurt the Palestinian people. This effort was completely counterproductive."
The Washington Post reported Sunday that the Bush administration has been spending money on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in recent weeks to improve its position as Palestinians prepare to vote for parliament for the first time in a decade.
The program calls for funding Palestinian Authority events and projects and announcing those projects in the days before the vote. Included are a national youth soccer tournament, street-cleaning campaigns, computers for classrooms and free food and water at border crossings. The effort has been coordinated through the chief of staff of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and leader of Fatah.
The program is managed by a division of the U.S. Agency for International Development, but the events and projects show no evidence of U.S. involvement. The U.S. effort also funds advertising that has appeared in Arabic-language papers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent days announcing the events.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack defended the program, casting it as an effort to help the Palestinian people, not Fatah. "We're not trying to put our finger on the scale," he said.
McCormack said it was "incorrect" to suggest that the project was timed to the four-week period before the Palestinian elections, though internal documents and interviews obtained by The Post made that link. A field report sent to officials in Washington this month promised "a constant stream of announcements and public outreach about positive happenings all over Palestinian areas in the critical week before the elections."
McCormack said that he did not know why projects involved in the plan were not identified as being connected to the United States, but that "what our people are interested in doing is what's effective on the ground, what helps out the Palestinian people."
Although $2 million is a fraction of the U.S. development budget in the Palestinian territories, the funds are significant in the context of the campaign. Under the Palestinian election system, half the seats in the 132-member parliament are designated for at-large national candidates, and each party can spend no more than $1 million for its list of candidates. District candidates, who compete for the remaining parliamentary seats, are allowed to spend a maximum of $60,000 each. The rules also prohibit campaigns or candidates from accepting money from foreign sources.
U.S. and Palestinian officials fear that the vote will result in a large Hamas presence in the legislature and undermine prospects for future peace negotiations with Israel. Hamas is classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization, and the party's parliamentary campaign marks the first time it is competing in national elections.
Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, calls for continuing its "armed resistance" that has targeted soldiers and civilians in suicide bombings and other attacks. But the organization has conducted years of grass-roots charitable work and has a reputation for clean government at the municipal level. It is a popular alternative for Palestinians who view Fatah's stewardship of the Palestinian Authority as ineffective and corrupt.
Ismail Haniyeh, the top candidate on Hamas's national list, called Monday for Palestinian election officials to investigate whether the program violated spending laws. He described the program as "blatant interference in Palestinian internal affairs," according to a statement first reported by al-Jazeera, a satellite channel.
Maxim Sansour, a spokesman for the Central Elections Commission, said his office had not received a formal complaint. But he said the commissio n would investigate a charge if filed, calling the claim "a concern." At least one other campaign said Monday that it intended to file a complaint.
"The Americans are so afraid of the Islamic movement in the street that they have thrown a lot of money at trying to stop us," said Naif Rajoub, a Hamas candidate from Hebron and brother of a Fatah leader. "I will assure the Americans that the Islamic tsunami is coming, and all the millions of dollars will not help them. Now that this plan has been discovered, the result will be the opposite."
Kessler reported from Washington.