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How not to help Hamas

January 31, 2006

PALESTINIANS RECEIVE MORE international aid, per capita, than any people in the world. The upset victory by Hamas in the Palestinian elections offers a rare opportunity, for the United States and for the international community, to rethink what that aid could realistically accomplish -- and under what conditions humanitarian aid could be provided to Palestinians without the risk that it would be siphoned to Hamas.

President Bush is right to threaten to cut off U.S. aid to a Palestinian government controlled by Hamas. U.S. law and common decency preclude taxpayer money from going to a terrorist group that has vowed to annihilate Israel. (Most of the $1.7 billion in U.S. aid after the 1993 Oslo agreement didn't go to the government, but the Palestinian Authority had been slated to get $150 million from the U.S. this year.)

And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with other donors Monday in London, is right to try to organize an immediate cutoff of international aid unless Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Thankfully, the Europeans are standing firm on that principle, although some nations may act more quickly than others.

Still, the Bush administration should take care not to become imprisoned by its own rhetoric. Now is the time for the United States to use its leverage over Hamas, but only if the administration makes a concerted effort to explain what it's doing and why.

First, the administration should be careful about the message it sends to the Arab world by preaching democracy as a cure-all and then refusing to deal with the democratically elected Palestinian government. The anti-American crowd will be howling hypocrisy. Bush should counter by stating, loudly and often, that denying aid to Hamas is not inconsistent with the support of democracy.

Second, the U.S. should look hard to find the best nongovernmental projects of true humanitarian benefit to the Palestinian people -- and think hard about how to continue to fund them. One obvious strategy is reallocating U.S. funds to Palestinian health clinics, thus depriving Hamas of its near-monopoly on delivering healthcare to the poor. The U.S. has had such "workarounds" for years. What must stop is the type of corrupt and corrupting U.S. slush fund that was ladled out to Fatah, which was deposed in last week's election, in a vain attempt to buy votes.

Finally, the administration probably won't be able to get any Arab states onboard for a cutoff of aid to a Hamas-led government. So it had best try to make sure that at least some of the international promises to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are kept -- with Arab money if need be. Washington pushed Abbas to pension off thousands of aging fighters to streamline the security services. Cutting them off would only send dangerous men into the streets.

The coming weeks and months, which will see the formulation of a Palestinian government and elections in Israel, promise to be unusually tense, even for the Mideast. The Bush administration can help ease the tension by using its leverage not to punish the Palestinian people but to promote the cause of peace.

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