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Using Purse Strings as Reins

The U.S. wants Mideast negotiators to warn Hamas that millions of dollars in aid may be withheld if it doesn't renounce violence.

January 28, 2006|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and Congress on Friday began trying to use the power of Western cash to push a new Palestinian government dominated by the radical Islamist group Hamas toward moderation.

Administration officials prepared for a Monday meeting in London at which they will urge the diplomatic group overseeing the Mideast peace effort to warn the Palestinians that they risk losing millions of dollars in international aid unless they renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

The international group, known as the "quartet," -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- is expected to cite the Palestinians' reliance on foreign aid in a joint statement.

In Congress, members of both chambers began pushing legislation that calls for further restrictions on U.S. aid to the Palestinians if Hamas does not change its ways. The measures are expected to win approval in the next few days, staff members said this week.

Aid from abroad is expected to be one of the most important levers of influence on Hamas, which opposes the international effort to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. In Washington, Sean McCormack, the State Department's chief spokesman, said the question of international aid would "be a topic of discussion" at the meeting Monday.

Palestinians receive $900 million a year in foreign aid, one-third of it from European treasuries, and the Group of 8 industrialized countries was considering a dramatic boost in aid. At a summit in Scotland in September, the G-8 agreed to a package that would provide the Palestinians up to $3 billion in coming years.

Some U.S. officials have said in recent days that they feared differences might emerge between the Bush administration and Europe over how hard to pressure Hamas. Europe has tended to be more sympathetic to Palestinian views in the Middle East conflict.

But European diplomats said Friday that the Americans and Europeans were united at the moment in a desire to press Hamas for change, and were willing to remind leaders of the militant group of their dependency.

"If the Palestinian Authority is alive, it's thanks to European support," said one diplomat, in an interview from Europe. "When Hamas goes to the bank for the first installment of the money they need to pay their staff salaries, they'll be reminded of this."

The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said it would be difficult for Europe to continue providing large amounts of money to support a group that advocates ideas European taxpayers "strongly oppose, like the use of violence. For us, this would be a great problem."

The diplomat said Europe was involved in other important areas, such as training Palestinian police and helping administer the important Rafah crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

The diplomat said that although the quartet would be clear in its message, it would not move quickly, since it remained unclear what form the new Palestinian government would take.

"We have to see how this administration will emerge," the official said. "This is an extraordinarily difficult situation. Nobody wants to rush to do anything precipitous."

Officials of the quartet were conferring Friday on a draft joint statement. After Palestinian election results were announced Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by phone with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov.

McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said that under a Hamas government, the administration would reconsider how it provided aid to the Palestinian territories.

"We're going to have to review all aspects of our aid program, based on our policy and our law," he told reporters.

U.S. law forbids giving assistance to a group, such as Hamas, that is designated a terrorist organization.

Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned the value of international pressure against Hamas, because the organization has been able to run its mosques and social service network without Western assistance. All of Hamas' operations are paid for by donations from Arab and Islamic countries.

"It's survived since its founding without [government] aid," Cook said, but he acknowledged that the organization might take a different view if it was in charge of running government ministries.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced a nonbinding resolution Thursday expressing the sense of Congress that no U.S. assistance should be provided to the Palestinian Authority if any ruling majority party urged the destruction of Israel.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs a House subcommittee on the Middle East, has drafted a bill she will introduce next week to limit direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, and to Palestinian towns governed by people tied to Hamas, aides said.

"If Hamas is now the ruling power, I do not foresee any U.S. funds going to the Palestinian territories," she said in a statement.

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