House Reps Reach Across the Aisle to Block Palestinian Statehood

If one thing has the potential to unite the fractious U.S. House of Representatives, it is the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN. First up, we have Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chairwoman of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, pushing a bill that would make U.S. funding of UN agencies conditional on how the body votes this month on Palestinian statehood. But the bill, which was just presented in the House, would also allow the U.S. to suspend financial support to the Palestinian Authority. It certainly has some interesting suggestions. Three stand out in particular, from a summary of the 153-page bill released by the Chairwoman’s office:

Title IV – Status of Palestinian Entities at the United Nations: Opposes efforts by the Palestinian leadership to evade a negotiated settlement with Israel and undermine opportunities for peace by seeking de facto recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN (through gaining membership for “Palestine” in UN agencies or programs). Withholds U.S. contributions from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission.

Title V – Goldstone Report: States that it is U.S. policy to lead a high-level diplomatic campaign calling for the revocation and repudiation of the Goldstone Report and its follow-on measures by the UN General Assembly. Also states that it is U.S. policy to consider the Goldstone Report, which falsely accused Israel of deliberately attacking Palestinian civilians during Operation Cast Lead, to be irredeemably biased and unworthy of consideration, legitimization, or support. Also states that it is U.S. policy to strongly and unequivocally oppose any consideration, legitimization, or support of the Goldstone Report or measures stemming from the report in multilateral organizations, and to encourage other nations to repudiate the report. Would also withhold U.S. funding from the Goldstone Report and its preparatory and follow-on measures.

Title VIII – UNRWA: Prohibits U.S. funding to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees. Despite failing to meet the requirements under U.S. law to obtain foreign assistance, UNRWA has received about $500 million in FY 2009 and 2010 alone, with over $230 million in further funding included in the Administration’s FY 2012 budget request. The prohibition on funding would remain in place until UNRWA: vets its staff and aid recipients through U.S. watch lists for ties to Foreign Terrorist Organizations; stops engaging in anti-Israel propaganda and politicized activities; improves its accountability and transparency; and stops banking with any financial institutions under U.S. designation for terror financing or money laundering.

So yes, while it’s little we have not heard before (“Second verse, same as the first!”), it is demonstrative of conservative opinion these days towards Israel, the Palestinians and the UN (and, arguably, “internationalism” in general).

But we also have House Democrats, despite Obama’s vow to exercise the U.S.’s veto power in the UN Security Council against the Palestinian effort, joining with Republicans in proposing punitive actions against the Palestinians. Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia have introduced a (non-binding) resolution, drawing hundreds of signatures, which would strip the Palestinian Authority of the US$600 million worth of aid payments it receives from the U.S. government. Democratic Congressman of NJ Steve Rothman, who sits on the powerful House Appropriate Committee, and who supports cutting aid to the Palestinians if they proceed at the UN, had the following to say to Washington Jewish Weekly:

The P.A. is acting irrationally and against its own interests. These resolutions are unambiguous, and when put into effect . . . will have a devastating impact on the Palestinian economy. Most of the Palestinian leadership has decided to turn a blind eye to the terrible consequences that will result upon their own people.

Another Democratic-backed resolution is aimed at U.S. allies who have expressed support for the Palestinian initiative. It would “prohibit Foreign Military Financing Program (FMFP) assistance to countries that vote in the UN General Assembly in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state in the absence of a negotiated border agreement between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” So far, it’s main supporters are all Democrats — Steve Israel and Eliot Engel of NY, Robert Brady of Pennsylvania and Steve Rothman of NJ. None of these individuals are no-name Congressmen: Israel, a member of several Israeli caucuses in the House, was appointed by Nancy Pelosi to serve as the head of the 2012 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and, along with Rothman, sits on the House Appropriations Committee. Engel is a member of the aforementioned House Foreign Affairs Committee. Brady has a seat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The multibillion-dollar FMFP is overseen by the Department of Defense but ultimately answers to Congress because it was established during the Cold War by Congress through a law called the Foreign Assistance Act. The bill, first reported on by Washington Jewish Weekly, is based on the rationale that foreign countries that oppose Israel should no longer receive U.S. military assistance.

One presumes that the bill is primarily aimed at Egypt and Jordan, who are, respectively, the second and third largest FMFP recipients in the Middle East, with Israel being the number one beneficiary of the program (the numbers for 2009: Israel, US$2.55 billion; Egypt, US$1.3 billion; Jordan, US$335 million).

This is the Department of Defense’s description of the FMFP (kind of reads like a press release for General Dynamics, doesn’t it?):

The principal means of ensuring America’s security is through the deterrence of potential aggressors who would threaten the U.S. or its allies. Foreign Military Financing, the U.S. government program for financing through grants or loans the acquisition of U.S. military articles, services, and training, supports U.S. regional stability goals and enables friends and allies to improve their defense capabilities. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) is made available under the authority of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Congress appropriates FMF funds in the International Affairs Budget, the Department of State allocates the funds for eligible friends and allies; and the Department of Defense executes the program. FMF helps countries meet their legitimate defense needs, promotes U.S. national security interests by strengthening coalitions with friends and allies, cements cooperative bilateral military relationships, and enhances interoperability with U.S. forces. Because FMF monies are used to purchase U.S. military equipment and training, FMF contributes to a strong U.S. defense industrial base, which benefits both America’s armed forces and American workers.

Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey also benefit from FMFP assistance.

Considering that the list of proscribed recipients would include valuable U.S. “allies” in the Mideast, it is not an idle threat (whereas, say, China, the EU and Russia could care less — more arms sales opportunities for them worldwide).

Then again, the Democratic-written bill would allow the president to review the suspensions on a case by case basis, so maybe it is an idle threat after all. Still, it sends an inescapable message: you’re expendable when it comes to Israel.

It says a lot about U.S. politics that while an international small arms treaty cannot win Congressional U.S. support because of Second Amendment concerns, a bill that would suspend all military aid to human rights violators such as the Egyptian, Turkish, Pakistani and Saudi Arabian militaries only exists because of the U.S. commitment to blocking a UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, which, according to the U.S. Government, is conditional on the following:

Palestinian State: No aid is permitted for a future Palestinian state unless the Secretary of State certifies that the governing entity of the state

1. has demonstrated a firm commitment to peaceful coexistence with the State of Israel [NB: this would exclude Hamas as it stands today];

2. is taking appropriate measures to counter terrorism and terrorist financing in the West Bank and Gaza in cooperation with Israel and others; and

3. is working with other countries in the region to vigorously pursue efforts to establish a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace in the Middle East that will enable Israel and an independent Palestinian state to exist within the context of full and normal relationships.

This restriction does not apply to aid meant to reform the Palestinian governing entity so that it might meet the three conditions outlined above. Additionally, the President is permitted to waive this restriction for national security purposes.

These bipartisan Congressional efforts show just how much Washington is willing to gamble on Israel’s behalf this September. While some Democrats have announced their opposition to the GOP’s UN-targeted bill, the FMFP and aid suspension resolutions may yet be one “liberal” defense-slashing bill we might see many Congressional Republicans supporting.

Might. After all, the defense industry sells many of the same weapons to both Israel and countries like Saudi Arabia. Who cares who recognizes who as long as both keep buying!

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.