Middle East

U.S. laws could gut-punch Palestinians on U.N. recognition

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, in New York, November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East

WASHINGTON: Approval of Palestinian non-member UN status this week provoked no US funding ban on the United Nations, but irate US lawmakers have introduced measures that would do dramatic fiscal harm to the Palestinians and could also target the global body.

The upgrade from "observer entity" to "non-member observer state" marked a diplomatic triumph for Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmud Abbas, but he will have the unenviable task of watching out for vindictiveness on Capitol Hill, and navigating tough new restrictions should the proposals become law.

"Nothing that happened yesterday triggers any sanction under existing law," Lara Friedman, director of policy relations at Americans for Peace Now, who is tracking Palestinian-related legislation in the US Congress, told AFP Friday.

The concern, Friedman said, is with three new measures, all added into a defense spending bill set for a Senate vote next week, which could slash funding to Palestinian organizations, the United Nations and its entities, and even countries that support a Palestine status upgrade.

In other words, the potential exists for far more serious funding cuts in the future than the rescinding of some $60 million in US dues for UNESCO when it admitted Palestine as a member state 13 months ago.

The United States and Israel were among just nine countries to vote against Palestine's UN elevation, while 138 countries supported the move, including France and Spain.

But the White House signaled Friday it would not seek to cut off UN funds or Palestinian aid, even though it sees the "unilateral" UN move as the wrong way to go about a two-state solution.

Still, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chuck Schumer were among several senators venting their fury, introducing legislation that would cut off as much as $935 million in foreign aid to the Palestinians -- $495 million in frozen fiscal year 2012 funds and a reported $440 for 2013 -- if they use their new UN standing to pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Some $200 million of that funding is urgent, "direct budget support" for the PA, the State Department said. But it has been held up for months in Congress, even after President Barack Obama signed a waiver to free up the money that was frozen after the Palestinians' full state bid last year.

"Granting UN membership to the Palestinian authority is a nightmare in the making for the peace process," Graham said, adding that he would not allow taxpayer dollars to support Palestinians who could use the UN and ICC as a "political club" against Israel.

But Abbas would have to weigh the risk of losing crucial US funds for the cash-strapped PA if he were to pursue Israel in the ICC.

The Graham legislation would also force the closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's office in Washington unless Palestinians are seen to have entered "meaningful" negotiations with Israel.

An official contacted there declined to comment on the proposed legislation or its impact on the PLO office, saying it was "all speculation."

Another amendment, filed by Republican Orrin Hatch hours before the UN vote, sought to eliminate all US funding to the United Nations if it changed Palestine's "current status."

A third amendment would slash US aid to Palestinians by half if the PA seeks a UN status upgrade "after November 25." The UN vote came on the 29th.

It would also cut US aid by 20 percent to any country which votes to upgrade Palestinian status.

"It's a bizarre scenario," said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow on Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Is there an objective that is being met by imposing whatever punishment or sanctions, or is it purely retaliation for its own sake?" Elgindy posed.

"None of the measures that I've seen proposed would further what everybody says is the goal, which is a two-state solution -- and would probably undermine it if not destroy it."

Archaic legislation came into play last year when the Palestinians sought full UN recognition.

That bid came up short, but had it gone through, Washington would have been bound to ban all US funding to the United Nations, thanks to a 1990 law forbidding authorization of funds to the UN if the body accords the PLO "the same standing as member states."

Many lawmakers expressed frustration with the UN vote, but made no mention of congressional retribution. It remains unclear whether the harsh legislation will pass, but if it does, could Obama outflank Congress to ensure that the funding keeps flowing?

He wields a veto pen, of course, which would send any bill back to Congress.

But George Ingram, who spent 20 years as a congressional aide, said such legislation is often crafted with a waiver that allows the president to override the law, often for what is deemed the interest of the United States.

"That frequently is the ultimate compromise," Ingram said.





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