abbas - Reuters - October 2 2011
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attending a rally in Ramallah yesterday. Photo by Reuters
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WASHINGTON - Prior to the Palestinian Authority's application last month to the Security Council for full United Nations membership, members from both sides of the U.S. Congress warned the PA leadership that attempts to bypass negotiations with Israel would have implications on American aid to the Palestinians. At a press conference opposite UN headquarters in New York last Monday, members of Congress reiterated the message.

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For his part, New York Congressman Gary Ackerman, who is the Ranking Democrat on the House Middle East affairs subcommittee, said: "If [the Palestinians] are willing to consider putting their future in the hands of the United Nations, perhaps they should think about how much aid their friends at the United Nations will provide to accompany whatever meaningless, one-sided UN resolution they might pass." He added that the move could lead to a complete cut-off of American funding.

A draft American budget for 2012 would condition aid to the Palestinian Authority upon a certification by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Palestinians are no longer attempting to secure unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. The British newspaper The Independent has reported that Congress went a step further and in August, even before the PA's formal application was submitted to the UN, froze funding that had already been budgeted to the Palestinian Authority for 2012.

The decision reportedly held up nearly $200 million, about third of the annual allocation to the PA. The newspaper quoted Palestinian sources as calling the step by Congress "collective punishment." For its part, Saudi Arabia announced about a week and a half ago that it intended to transfer $200 million to the Palestinian Authority in advance of a vote at the UN on recognition of a Palestinian state.

Congress went into recess Wednesday and the move to withhold funding to the Palestinian Authority was not officially announced, although the funding was not transferred to the PA by last Friday, which was the last day of the American fiscal year. Sources from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have confirmed that the funding has been suspended until the issue of the Palestinian application to the UN is settled.

Opponents of suspension of the American funding for the Palestinians recently warned that canceling the financial assistance would hurt security cooperation between the PA and Israel, and in the process would negatively affect regional stability. The Obama administration has also expressed its opposition to withholding the aid, saying it would harm the capacity of the United States to advance its interests in the region at a critical period.

However, aides to members of Congress on both foreign policy committees said that the funds involved are not part of the security funding package, but are instead earmarked for humanitarian assistance and infrastructure projects. Freezing assistance would therefore not affect the Palestinian Authority's capacity to deal with potential outbreaks of violence or with security cooperation with Israel, the sources said. Instead, they said it should be seen primarily as a warning to the Palestinians.

Dylan Williams, the director of government affairs at the dovish Jewish lobby J Street, told Haaretz that the freezing of funding was highly dangerous, adding that it was even more disturbing because it was carried out without proper notice. It will simply harm Palestinian moderates and benefit Hamas, he added. The withholding of funds is similar to a step Congress took after an exchange of fire on the Lebanon-Israel border, when aid to Lebanon was suspended so it could be verified that none of it was going to the militant Hezbollah organization.