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Palestinians Vie for Share of U.S. Funds

Times Staff Writer

After being treated for years as political pariahs by official Washington, Palestinians now find themselves players in perhaps the city’s most enduring struggle -- the fight for federal money.

Just last November, Congress balked at the Bush administration’s request for $20 million to help fund elections for a new Palestinian Authority president after Yasser Arafat’s death. Loath to give money directly to the Palestinian Authority, which many in Congress regarded as a corrupt entity that supported terrorists, lawmakers insisted that the funds be used to pay utility bills the Palestinians owed Israel.

But with the election of Mahmoud Abbas in January as Arafat’s successor, the White House hopes to capitalize on a new mood of cautious optimism about prospects for peace in the Middle East.

President Bush has asked Congress to bolster Abbas’ efforts to rein in militants and rebuild the Palestinians’ shattered infrastructure by providing a quick infusion of cash. To that end, he has asked for $200 million in emergency funding for the current fiscal year, and a doubling of aid in the 2006 budget to $150 million.

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The request is minuscule compared with the $3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Israel, but it represents an increase that would have been unthinkable while Arafat was alive.

Some on Capitol Hill grumble that Bush may be moving too quickly and should be required to put strict conditions on the funding. But lawmakers predict that the president is likely to get most, and perhaps all, of what he wants.

“As of right now, I cannot believe that we won’t, at the end of the day, appropriate the funds,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), a senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and staunch supporter of the Jewish state.

Approval of the aid package would spotlight the altered view in Washington toward the Palestinians, a process aided by Israel’s response to Abbas.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who refused to meet with Arafat, recently greeted the new Palestinian leader and invited him to visit his ranch. Israel is quietly supporting the Bush administration’s funding request for the Palestinian Authority, which includes about $50 million to build high-tech border crossing facilities between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Edward Abington Jr., a former U.S. State Department official in Jerusalem who serves as a Washington-based consultant to the Palestinian Authority, said the change in attitude was palpable.

“When members [of Congress] are traveling, they are really wanting to meet senior [Palestinian] officials,” Abington said. “That certainly wasn’t happening with Arafat over the past four years.”

Abington said so many lawmakers were demanding time with Abbas on trips to the region that the Palestinian leader’s aides were having trouble scheduling them.

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He added that lawmakers were also eager to meet with Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Salam Fayyad when he recently made the rounds in Washington to explain how the authority was investing funds that Arafat had kept in private accounts.

In another sign of change on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate passed resolutions praising the Palestinians for holding democratic elections and welcoming Abbas’ commitment to seeking peace. The two resolutions contained some of the most positive statements heard from Congress in years about the Palestinians and their government.

Still, some conservative Republicans were stunned by the size of the foreign aid package included in the $81.9-billion emergency funding request detailed last week by the administration, most of which would go to U.S. military and rebuilding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These lawmakers said the entire $4 billion in foreign aid money would come under close scrutiny.

“There will be a lot of pushback, and there may be real pushback against the whole number for the Palestinians,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who serves on the Senate Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees.

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Brownback, a strong supporter of Israel, said he thought he would support an increase in funding for the Palestinians but said it must have strings attached.

“I can’t support it without controls on it,” he said. “We’ve had too much of the money poorly spent or misspent.”

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of conservative House Republicans, said he and many of his allies favored stripping the foreign aid package from the emergency funding request and forcing the administration to include it in the 2006 budget proposal.

But even Pence, who described himself as an evangelical Christian with a passionate belief in the need to ensure Israel’s survival, said he agreed it was important to support the Palestinian reform effort.

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“I think people think it is a season of opportunity but remain skeptical,” Pence said. “The blood-soaked history of the terrorist element within the Palestinian Authority is just impossible to forget. And yet, I find myself literally hoping, and at times praying, that this will usher in a new era of peace.”

Supporters of the Palestinians said Congress must quickly authorize money to support Abbas’ efforts at reform and peacemaking.

“If there is any meaning to the phrase ‘time is of the essence,’ it applies to the case now,” said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, a pro-Palestinian lobbying group. “There is a sense of a moment of promise now across this city. Everybody wants to see what can be done.”

Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, has said he will propose making the U.S. funding contingent upon Arab states making good on aid pledges they made three years ago at a donors conference for the Palestinians.

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Morton Klein, president of the conservative Zionist Organization of America, said that he was not opposed to the funding, although his group had been critical of Abbas.

“What we’re saying is, let’s ... hold them accountable,” Klein said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where he and other U.S. Jewish leaders were meeting with Israeli officials.

Klein said his group was “lobbying very hard” for Congress to require that as a condition for receiving aid, the Palestinian Authority must arrest suspected terrorists, end incitement against Israel and dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two radical Palestinian factions.


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