After an intense push from the Obama administration, influential House Republican appropriator Kay Granger of Texas agreed to release her hold on the $147 million in assistance to the West Bank and Gaza despite her lingering disapproval of the Palestinians' bid for statehood at the United Nations.
However, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah informing them she will only lift her hold on $88.6 million -- to be used under special conditions -- making it unlikely the Palestinians will receive the entire U.S. package of development assistance.
Granger, who chairs the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, called Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides on Friday. Granger said she is lifting her hold on the development aid to the Palestinians on humanitarian grounds.
"I have taken a strong position on aid to the [Palestinian Authority] to send a message that seeking statehood at the United Nations, forming a unity government with Hamas, and walking away from the negotiating table with Israel were not pathways to peace," Granger said in a statement.
Citing "continued unrest and uncertainty" in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, Granger said, "Right now it is in our interest--and the interest of our allies in the region--to allow aid to flow to address security and humanitarian concerns."
The two Republicans placed holds on the assistance last August to voice their strong opposition to the Palestinians' push for recognition at the U.N., which they said was meant to circumvent direct peace talks with Israel.
The Palestinians' September bid at the U.N., which was strongly opposed by the Obama administration, was ultimately left to fizzle in the Security Council without approval. The Palestinians did, however, successfully become members of the U.N.'s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization -- and lawmakers are concerned that the Palestinians may continue their unilateral search for recognition as peace talks continue to flounder.
Lawmakers are also concerned about the initial agreement signed last week by Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah to reunite their respective governments in Gaza and the West Bank.
A drop in aid from Western and Gulf backers--as well as Israeli restrictions on trade--has sparked a growing financial crisis for the Palestinians, according to Reuters. The International Monetary Fund last week said that donors should meet their aid pledges to the Palestinian Authority, lest the government be forced to cut public wages and social benefits in a worsening fiscal situation.
Earlier this week, Ros-Lehtinen told Shah that she is unconvinced by the administration's request for parts of the assistance to the Palestinians. "Among the arguments utilized is that [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] needs to be supported because he’s ‘all we have,' " Ros-Lehtinen said at a hearing. "The administration also says we need to help ‘rebuild the Palestinian economy.' This at a time when our economy is facing serious challenges and Americans are suffering."
Ros-Lehtinen has said the list of projects the administration wants to fund with the development assistance money -- including programs for water, health, food, and support for USAID -- are aimed at addressing humanitarian concerns. "Congress and the administration can find common ground on these," Ros-Lehtinen said at the hearing.
In her Friday letter, Ros-Lehtinen said she would allow the release of some $88.6 million of the funds -- with the understanding they would not be used for assistance and recovery programs in Hamas-run Gaza; road construction projects in the West Bank unless vital for security; or trade facilitation, tourist promotion, or scholarships for Palestinian students.
The administration can technically disburse the Palestinian assistance funds and overrule the holds placed by members of Congress — but administrations generally do not take that course amid objections from lawmakers on relevant committees. Ros-Lehtinen, in her letter, referred to what she called the Obama administration's "threat" to proceed with the full $147 million package and said she was "disappointed [it] would employ hard-ball tactics against Congress" and stressed the need for congressional oversight.
A State Department official said that Nides has been working closely with Ros-Lehtinen and Granger on this issue for months.
"We continue to strongly support U.S. assistance to the Palestinian people, which also benefits the United States and Israel," the official said. "This assistance has helped the Palestinian Authority make real progress toward meeting the needs of its people, ensuring security, and building the institutions of a future Palestinian state that would result from negotiations.”