U.S. may keep Palestinian-aid ban

September 13, 2006|By Paul Richter and Ken Ellingwood | Paul Richter and Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Palestinian plans to form a multiparty "unity" government have created a dilemma for the Bush administration, which wants to ease suffering in the Gaza Strip and West Bank without lifting pressure on Hamas, the militant group that is now in charge.

Leaders of the militant group, and those of the rival Fatah faction, announced this week that they are close to completing a deal that they hope, by more widely dividing power, would persuade the West to end an aid cutoff that has bankrupted the government and set off factional fighting.

U.S. officials, who consider Hamas a terrorist group, have halted all but humanitarian aid since the group won power in January elections. U.S. officials have said they do not want a humanitarian catastrophe in the territories, but said yesterday that the Palestinian proposal may not prompt an end to the U.S. aid ban.

The U.S. bind was complicated by Europe's warmer reaction to the Palestinian unity government plan, posing a risk that a new trans-Atlantic rift could develop over the issue. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said this week after a visit to the region that it might be possible for the West to deal with the unified government.

Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said U.S. officials would look closely at details of the plan, which have not yet been completed.

"We are continuing to be mindful of the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people," Casey said. But he also signaled some skepticism, saying that before aid was resumed, the Palestinians would need to renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Casey said that "from what we have seen so far, we are certainly concerned" that the new government does not accept those demands, which were laid out in January by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Israeli officials did not close the door on the unity deal when it was announced Monday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah.

But yesterday, one Israeli official sounded more skeptical, saying the deal seemed to be an effort to put a more presentable face on the government without making substantive changes or concessions. Restoring aid now would lift the pressure on Hamas just when it was beginning have an impact, the official said, noting that polls show public support in the territories shifting away from Hamas and toward Fatah. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy under way.

Some analysts said the Bush administration would be strongly influenced by the Israeli government's attitude and probably would not resume aid. But they speculated that Washington could decide not to object to a European decision to resume, or even increase, aid.

"The Americans will probably react coolly to it, but they may say to the Europeans, `If you have to [resume aid], we can live with it,'" said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy predicted U.S. skepticism would prevail. "I think people in Washington are going to be pretty underwhelmed by it," Makovsky said. "I think [the Palestinians are] playing with words and trying to get the world to give them as much money as possible without being bound to anything."

Many U.S. lawmakers probably would object loudly to any resumption of aid. Both houses of Congress have passed bills this year to limit the provision of direct aid to the Palestinian government as long as Hamas is in charge.

The U.S. government has provided $468 million in direct humanitarian aid to the Palestinians this year, Casey said.

Paul Richter and Ken Ellingwood write for the Los Angeles Times.

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