Palestinian Aid Closer To Being Released Amid Heated Negotiations In Congress

WASHINGTON -- House appropriators on Tuesday were scrambling to complete a deal that would result in the release of some $150 million in development aid to the Palestinian territories that has been held up for the past six months, numerous officials told The Huffington Post.

The aid has been stalled since late last summer, when Congress, led by the House Foreign Affairs Committee's chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), put a stop to all funding to the Palestinian Authority over its attempt to seek statehood at the United Nations.

Some of the money was later released: After numerous pro-Israel voices, including those of top Israeli officials in private consultations on the Hill, spoke out to defend the part of that aid that related to security assistance, Ros-Lehtinen lifted her hold on that portion. In December, once the United Nations crisis had passed, Congress later released about $40 million in development funds as well.

But the rest of the development aid, some $147 million, has remained in limbo, held up by Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.

Nongovernmental organizations working in the West Bank that rely on those funds for activities like water management and medical assistance have called the situation dire, noting that without an infusion of funds they will have to begin shutting down their programs next month.

The State Department has repeatedly pressed legislators to lift the hold on the development funds, calling them essential to Israeli and American interests in the region. But until recently there's been little movement on the matter in Congress.

At a Tuesday hearing, Ros-Lehtinen challenged Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to justify his agency's aid to the West Bank. She later issued a press release championing her leadership on slowing down the aid.

But after the day's hearings, staffers on both sides of the aisle told HuffPost, it became apparent that some money must be released immediately. Republican staffers floated the idea of a partial release -- $70 million, many said -- to at least relieve the current crisis for the nongovernmental organizations.

There are other options, staffers involved with the negotiations said. Granger, who is said to be less ideologically driven to block the aid, could lift her hold on the entire package, leaving Ros-Lehtinen to face a discontented White House on her own. Alternatively, the Obama administration might opt to steamroll Congress' hold entirely, something that would be legally within its powers but politically unsavory.

"I think they're ready to pick that fight," said a Democratic aide, referring to the State Department's apparent tiring of "partial measures."

In a statement to HuffPost on Tuesday about the aid, a State Department official acknowledged that Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides "has been working closely with Chairman Ros-Lehtinen and Congresswoman Granger on this issue," but declined to comment specifically on talks.

"We continue to see significant value in providing assistance to the Palestinian Authority, as we believe it benefits both the Palestinians and the Israelis, as well as the United States," the statement said. "We will continue to work with Congress to ensure that this goal is achieved."

The impasse over the Palestinian aid strikes many as peculiar because although it might appear controversial on its face, almost no one directly involved in the matter actually opposes it.

When Congress partially lifted the block on funding in December, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said, "The Israeli government would welcome the decision to lift the congressional hold on U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank."

Israeli military officials have been even more explicit: In October, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the Israeli officer in charge of the West Bank, told The New York Times that a cut in American aid "decreases security" for Israel.

"Stability in the region includes the ability of the Palestinian Authority to pay its salaries," the general said. "Reducing the Palestinians' ability to pay decreases security. American aid is relevant to this issue."

Earlier this week, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that an internal Israeli report -- echoing a new World Bank study -- had concluded that a severe slowdown of the Palestinian economy was undermining state-building efforts and regional security.

The reports noted that foreign assistance for the Palestinian Authority had declined to just $600 million this year, a third of the amount in 2008.

Steven White, a retired American Marine who served as a senior adviser to the U.S. security coordinator in the West Bank until last year, told The Huffington Post recently that if development and state-building programs are eliminated, the remaining security funds will be essentially useless.

"Everyone talks about it as a three-legged stool: security, development, governance," White said. "And no one will defend the other two legs more aggressively than the security folks. The main issue for security was to create a Palestinian security sector that took care of Palestinian society first and foremost, to restore law and order, then move on to terror. If you cut out development, what you've done is create just a shell of an entity."

Meanwhile, NGO workers say without a fast resolution, they will face a major crisis. "The situation is reaching a tipping point," said an American who works for an nongovernmental group on West Bank aid issues. "What we're looking at is a dismantling of an American-Palestinian assistance program that goes back decades."

Already some programs have been shuttered entirely as a result of the funding cuts: In January, the Palestinian version of the children's show "Sesame Street" was cancelled when its production staff ran out of funds.