WASHINGTON – Congress on Monday rejected a request from the Trump administration to devote $175 million to a special fund that could have supported the White House's Mideast peace plan. This decision, which was reached as part of a bipartisan agreement on the U.S. government’s budget for 2020, is the latest signal coming out of D.C. that the peace plan isn’t likely to be released anytime soon, mostly because of the ongoing political crisis in Israel.
In March, the White House sent its budget proposal to Congress, including a request for $175 million for a “Diplomatic Progress Fund.” As first reported by Haaretz, the White House document explained that this fund was necessary in order to provide “flexibility” in the administration’s Middle East policy, in the event of progress toward regional peace.
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The White House specifically said at the time that this sum could potentially be invested in aid to the Palestinians. For the past two years, the Trump administration has cut almost all U.S. aid to the Palestinians, including funds for civilian and educational projects, as well as for hospitals. The budget request in March showed that the administration wanted to have money that would be set aside and available in case ties with the Palestinians improved.
The budget agreement reached by congressional leaders from both parties, which was published Monday, includes a direct rejection of that monetary request. In a section devoted to the Middle East, the congressional document states: “The agreement does not provide $175,000,000 for a Diplomatic Progress Fund, as proposed in the House report.”
A congressional source who was involved in negotiations over the budget told Haaretz that the rejection was not motivated by politics, but rather by budgetary considerations. The source said that while the Diplomatic Progress Fund was not exclusively related to the peace plan, that plan seemed like the main reason the administration wanted to secure the funding.
“One argument against it was, ‘No one thinks this peace plan is coming out anytime soon, so why devote money to it?’” the source said, adding that “If it becomes serious, [the White House] will find support for it. No one in Congress will stand in the way of a peace plan if it seems like it has a chance to succeed.”
The $175 million sum is significantly lower than the previous level of U.S. aid to the Palestinians before the Trump administration’s cuts. The only part of the aid to the Palestinians that the administration has not completely halted is security assistance to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which work together with the Israeli military to prevent terror attacks.
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The special fund could have also allowed the administration to “reward” Arab countries for improving their ties with Israel or supporting the administration’s peace plan. The White House hopes that even if the Palestinians reject the plan, some Arab countries will express openness toward it, especially in light of Trump’s close relations with the leaders of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The peace plan was originally intended to be released during 2019, but its publication has been delayed several times because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued failure to form a government. Israel’s two election campaigns throughout the year, and a third election set to take place in March 2020, further complicated the situation. The chances that the plan will be released before Trump stands for reelection next November are low.