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Congress Blocking Aid to the Palestinians: the Facts & What They Mean

This past weekend there were press reports (original story in the Independent, with further reporting in the Israeli press) that Congress was blocking $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA).  As is often the case when it comes to the rather arcane world of Congress and appropriations, the press reports were partly correct and partly incorrect, and also missed some rather important points.

The Facts

  • U.S. direct assistance to the PA for FY2011, which amounted to $200 million, is already out the door.  Congress can't do anything to block funding that has already been spent, although some members of Congress are threatening to cut off this funding in 2012 to punish the Palestinian Authority for going to the UN.

  • Congress is blocking $192 million in funds for U.S. humanitarian programs for Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza.  This funding is being blocked by Republicans on two House committees: the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations Committee's Foreign Operations Subcommittee.  These funds are for programs funded through USAID and carried out by non-governmental organizations.  It should be emphasized that the West Bank/Gaza assistance program is completely distinct from U.S. aid to the PA.  U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people has long been kept hermetically sealed off from PA aid - specifically to enable it to continue, even, for example, when concerns over corruption led Congress to prohibit all aid to the PA (a prohibition that still is law today, but a law that the President has the authority to waive, with conditions), and even after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.  The U.S. program for the West Bank and Gaza, it should be emphasized, is probably the most congressionally restricted, conditioned, vetted and overseen U.S. assistance program in the world - all to ensure that not a dollar benefits the PA and that not a dollar serves any purpose but to address humanitarian concerns and promote U.S. policy objectives. 

    • Congress is also blocking $150 million in funding for security assistance to the PA (aid that comes under the title of "international narcotics control and law enforcement programs - INCLE").  This block - which so far has not been reported in the media - does target the PA and will be very problematic for the PA.  These funds are being blocked by Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and possibly also by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (this could not be confirmed as of this writing).  Some members of Congress have also threatened to cut these funds in 2012 to punish the Palestinian Authority for going to the UN.

The press has not been clear on how Congress is blocking funds that have been previously approved, so to clarify:  Congress keeps a very tight hold on the purse strings when it comes to foreign aid in general, and assistance for the Palestinians and the PA in particular.  One way it does this is by (as part of the law providing the funds) requiring the Administration to notify/consult with relevant committees (House and Senate) before actually spending money.  The relevant committees are the committees with jurisdiction over foreign assistance - the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Foreign Operations Subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.  As part of this notification process, a committee member or members can place a hold on a given expenditure - in theory in order to get more information/justification from the Administration. 

That is what is happening here with the holds on the $192 million for USAID funding for the Palestinians, and the hold on the $150 million for security assistance - although of course while some members might legitimately want more information (including information about how USAID might be adapting to new circumstances that could be relevant to a these aid programs), for others this could easily be a handy pretext for just blocking the funding for political reasons.

What this all means

The fact that Congress is blocking the $192 million in USAID funding is quite important - not because it indicates that Congress is trying to squeeze the PA (though the previously unreported blocking of the $150 million in security assistance clearly does indicate this and will absolutely have that effect), but because it discloses a lot about the current atmosphere on the Hill, with important ramifications for U.S. assistance to both the PA and the Palestinians. 

  • The narrative that says that "the-Palestinians'-decision-to-go-to-the-UN-is-a-form-of-diplomatic-terrorism-that-cannot-go-unpunished", cultivated for months by AIPAC, Israeli diplomats, and most of the American Jewish and right-wing Christian community, has firmly taken root. 

  • The over-arching logic on the Hill these days - on both sides of the aisle - is that the race is on to find things to cut, and foreign assistance is always an attractive target, since it has no domestic constituency to protect it (except of course for aid to Israel, which in any case is provided in a lump sum at the beginning of the fiscal year, so nobody in Congress could threaten this aid, even if they wanted to and didn't care that it would be politically suicidal to do so).
  • These two trends are combining to create a situation in which pretty much every program that is in any way related to the Palestinians, including both programs that are strictly humanitarian in nature and those that keep the PA going, has a huge target painted on it.   This also includes Palestinian-related programs at the United Nations, which are in the cross-hairs of the House (for details of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen's bill targeting the UN in general and Palestinian programs at the UN in particular, see my analysis here.  That bill is due to be marked up in committee later this month).

  • Absent an energized and public effort to protect these funds - not by progressive forces on the left, but by the same parties that have spent the past months convincing members of Congress (AIPAC et al) that they can earn huge political capital attacking by aid to the Palestinians - this aid has and inevitably will continue to come under attack (for more on this, see my recent piece in the Huffington Post: Lesson to the "Pro-Israel" Right: Be Careful What You Ask From Congress).