Obama punts to Congress over repercussions for UN Palestine vote

The White House won't seek to punish the Palestinian Authority for this week's statehood vote at the United Nations, but did not vow to veto pending legislative proposals to cut off U.S. aid in retaliation.

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The U.N. General Assembly voted 138-9 on Thursday to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as a non-member observer state, over the strident objections of the United States and Israel. In response, the Senate is expected to vote next week on legislation placing new restrictions on the $600 million in annual U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Questions about repercussions are “better directed at the Congress than at us,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday. She said the State Department is still trying to release $495 million in pending funds for fiscal year 2012 that were held up following the Palestinians' failed effort last year to become a full member of the U.N.

“We will also continue to try to support the Palestinian Authority, because this money supports their ... ability to administer the territories, provide security, and take care of the needs of the Palestinian people, who we continue to believe need our support, need the international community's support.”


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And White House spokesman Josh Earnest stopped short of issuing a veto threat against congressional efforts to block the aid. He told reporters that the administration does not have any information to share about “any specific actions that are being contemplated.”

“The reason for that is simply that our aid to the Palestinians is an important part of our relationship,” Earnest said. “And we believe that we can – the United States can and should play a constructive role in facilitating negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

U.S. officials say they believe the statehood vote could harm the chances for a two-state solution. They're concerned Palestine may use it to pursue criminal charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court, for example.

The Senate is expected to vote next week on bipartisan legislation that would cut off U.S. aid if that happens as an amendment to the pending Defense authorization bill, a Senate aide said. The bill, championed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would also shutter the PLO’s Washington office unless the president determines that the Palestinians are engaged in “meaningful negotiations” with Israel.

The senators said Thursday they did not want to immediately terminate aid in order to preserve the chance for a negotiated two-state solution with Israel.

“It's a very clear message to the Palestinians: the choice is yours,” Menendez said. “We could have pre-empted that choice. The choice is yours. If you return to a negotiation, we're good.”

The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC urged passage of the bill in a letter to senators Friday.

“The amendment responds directly to yesterday’s harmful U.N. General Assembly decision to grant non-member state status to Palestine,” the letter states. “The amendment is designed to warn the Palestinian leadership about the negative consequences to U.S-PLO relations should the PLO exploit this decision in an attempt to delegitimize Israel.”

Some Republicans want to punish both PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) and the U.N.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Congress to impose “severe economic consequences” for the U.N.'s “irresponsible” action. She said the United States should cut the $600 million in annual funding for the Palestinian Authority as well as any funding for U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine as a state.

“It’s crystal clear that Abu Mazen and his cronies are not partners for peace and do not value their relationship with the U.S.,” she said in a prepared statement. “The U.S must stand with our ally Israel and offer no U.S. taxpayer dollars and no political support for the PLO.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) offered an amendment to the defense bill that would cut off the almost $600 million the United States pays in U.N. dues every year if Palestine is granted a change in status from a permanent observer entity before a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached with Israel.

And Barrasso has an amendment to cut 50 percent of the total U.S. funds to the Palestinian Authority and to any U.N. entity that granted the Palestinians a status change. It would also reduce 20 percent of all U.S. foreign assistance to any country that voted for the status change. 

Other countries have already taken action.

Israel on Friday announced the approval of 3,000 new settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, earning a rebuff from the State Department.

“We think this kind of move is counter-productive. It makes negotiations harder,” Nuland said. “But, we also said that in the context of the move [at the U.N.] in New York, you had a risk of action-causing reaction. So, you know, in the context of this, we are going to be evenhanded in saying we don't want to see provocative action, instead we want to see the parties focused on coming back to the table without preconditions.”

And Canada recalled its top diplomats in Israel and the West Bank as well as its U.N. representatives in New York City and Geneva in protest.

“I want to get a sense from the diplomats what they see on the ground, how they see things going, and how we can effectively respond to what could be a new reality,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told CBC News. He vowed to “review the full range of its bilateral relationship” with the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the U.N. vote.