Divide over Palestinian authority could derail bill to limit funding

Legislation seeking to restrain federal funding for the Palestinian government could be delayed or derailed because of a divide between Congress and the White House.

Legislation seeking to restrain federal funding for the Palestinian government could be delayed or derailed because of a divide between Congress and the White House.

The bill would place strict limits on the appropriation of federal money to the Palestinian Authority and specifically Hamas, the terrorist movement recently elected to run the government.

Concerned that the bill would significantly constrain President Bush’s ability to engage the new leadership diplomatically, the administration may look either to thwart the legislation or slow the bill’s movement to ascertain whether Hamas fails to form a new government or new elections will be held.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), has 87 co-sponsors, including House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), ranking member of the International Relations Committee, and Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee.

James Phillips, research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said, “The administration probably will try to derail this bill, if only because no administration likes to have its hands tied by Congress on foreign policy.” He added that the White House will want to increase its ability to practice diplomacy with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Nathan Brown, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the White House is “definitely playing a waiting game” in regards to the formation of a Palestinian government. He added that the bill is focused more on enacting “strict legal restrictions in place permanently” and less on facilitating relations with the Palestinian government.

The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which strives to amend a federal statute regarding foreign assistance, calls for the president to certify that certain conditions prevail before federal money can be appropriated to the Palestinian Authority.

A fair number of those stipulations relate to broad-based institutional changes, including taking extensive steps to supply media and textbooks that promote peaceful co-existence with Israel, ensuring both legitimate democratic rule and an independent judiciary, and making the financial operations of all government institutions transparent.

The measure also calls for a suspension of U.S. funds to the United Nations until recommendations regarding Palestinian-related entities are implemented, restrictions on travel visas for all Palestinian Authority officials and declaration of the Palestinian territory as a “sanctuary for terrorists” until the conditions are met. Members of the National Security Council, in the interest of cultivating a larger degree of diplomatic flexibility, have already expressed their interest in a presidential waiver to the funding restrictions, according to Yleem Poblete, staff director with the House subcommittee on the Middle East, which Ros-Lehtinen chairs.

Hamas’s commitment to terrorism against Israel is clear and requires immediate action, Ros-Lehtinen herself said, adding, “As such, my focus and those of our colleagues is to proceed with the legislative process without delay.”

Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for Lantos, said that the bill is intended to use Congress’s purse-string powers to prevent the White House from establishing diplomatic relations with Hamas as long as it supports terrorism. She went on to say that the formation of the new government would not be a factor in how quickly the bill moves through committee for a final vote.

Hamas won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections in January and has until the end of this month to form a government. If Hamas does not meet the deadline, the current president and member of the opposing Fatah party, Mahmoud Abbas, can appoint any other official to create a government, though it would likely have to include members of Hamas.

Attorneys with Fatah are analyzing the Palestinian constitution for ways to establish new elections if Hamas is not able to create a government, Brown said.

The legislation represents a break from the administration’s approach toward Hamas and the Palestinian government. The administration has conditioned the receipt of American money on more traditional and less stringent prerequisites — specifically calling on Hamas to recognize Israel, honor prior treaty obligations and renounce the use of terror — to prevent a financial cutoff.

The White House has also adopted a wait-and-see approach with the Palestinian government regarding funding and diplomacy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when asked about future U.S. aid, said that the administration would continue to provide financial backing to the interim “caretaker government” and “await the outcomes of the government formation process because that will tell the tale of what is possible.”

The administration has a significant ally on this issue: House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who said recently on the floor that “tying the hands of the administration is not in the interest of United States’ national security” and that Congress should not “make final decisions in advance of the formation of the new Palestinian Cabinet.”

Still, the president could be under tremendous pressure to sign the bill if it moves through Congress — especially after the recent uproar about the deal involving U.S. ports with Dubai Ports World, a company from the United Arab Emirates, rendered him vulnerable on the issue of security. House and Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), publicly criticized the administration for potentially compromising national security by approving the deal.

A recent CBS News poll showed that 43 percent of Americans approved of the president’s campaign against terrorism, dropping nine points from three weeks ago.

Dan Shapiro, legislative director for Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who co-sponsored legislation similar to Ros-Lehtinen’s, said that senators are already discussing another bill that would adopt some of the provisions of the Ros-Lehtinen measure and that the likely result would be a “fairly restrictive” bill that would garner “wide support” in both chambers.

In January, Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill that parallels many of the White House’s conditions regarding funding of the Palestinian Authority, but that has only 19 co-sponsors, including four members of the International Relations Committee.