If President Obama is serious about tackling the ever-elusive goal of achieving peace in the Middle East, he should start his efforts not with prodding Israel or the Palestinians, but rather a little closer to home -- Foggy Bottom.
Through either deliberate neglect or simple ineptitude, the State Department has made U.S. taxpayers complicit in perpetuating the single greatest impediment to Middle East peace: an increasingly radical Palestinian society that despises Israel and embraces terrorism.
Despite multiple government audits and several changes enacted in the law over the past few years, the department still cannot ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not enriching terrorists or underwriting terrorist propaganda in schools across the West Bank and Gaza. According to a critical report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, the State Department has fallen short overseeing aid to Palestinians through both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which administers Palestinian refugee camps.
This means in practical terms that many of the Palestinians who are consuming a steady diet of Islamist indoctrination and glorification of violence receive this brainwashing courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. It doesn't require high-level deductions to predict how badly this wounds - if not kills - any hope for Palestinian society to embrace peaceful coexistence with a Jewish state of Israel.
Given the billions of dollars U.S. taxpayers have steered to the Palestinians - almost $600 million just last year - the United States has as much leverage as anyone to put a stop to this nonsense. Unfortunately, though the State Department has done a bit to improve matters, it has not done nearly enough.
The GAO report, requested in part because of congressional concerns over reporting by this journalist in The Washington Times, indicates that the State Department has dropped the ball on overseeing UNRWA. For example, existing U.S. law requires that UNRWA take "all possible measures" to prevent assistance from going to anyone who has engaged in any terrorist activity. The department, however, "has not defined the key term 'all possible measures' or defined nonconformance."
Some of GAO's recommendations are comically simple, such as "establishing criteria to evaluate UNRWA's efforts." Others are so obviously necessary that it's shocking they haven't been required all along, such as "screening the names of UNRWA contractors against lists of individuals and entities of concern to the United States."
Leading congressional efforts to prevent U.S. taxpayer money from flowing to terrorists or their propaganda has been Rep. Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey Democrat. Earlier this year, he introduced a resolution calling for UNRWA to put its textbooks on the Internet for public inspection and for the United States to screen the agency's payroll for terrorists.
His ultimate goal, he explains, is simple: "Not one penny of U.S. taxpayer dollars should go either directly or indirectly to anyone associated with Hamas or any other terrorist organization. Nor should any go to terrorist propaganda in classrooms."
Congress moved one step further in that direction earlier this month. In the supplemental appropriations bill that included an additional $119 million for UNRWA for the current fiscal year, lawmakers made it clear they are not happy with the status quo. The spending bill requires the State Department to propose a plan to increase the transparency and accountability of UNRWA. More important, it sets aside $1 million for the department's inspector general to audit USAID.
Within the next month, the House foreign aid appropriators could go even further in the spending bill for 2010. Mr. Rothman has several proposals to increase accountability and transparency for both USAID and UNRWA.
However, changing the law alone is not enough. Judging by current procedures, the State Department seems intent on not enforcing the laws passed by Congress.
Lawmakers have dictated repeatedly and explicitly that no U.S. taxpayer funds can go to any organization that has even "advocated" terrorism - meaning no money should go to groups whose leaders have declared on Al-Jazeera or elsewhere that suicide bombers are "martyrs." This is not trivial. Figures who lionize terrorists and praise evil acts poison society and ultimately help cause more terrorism.
The State Department's bar that contractors and aid recipients must clear is much lower. Even under the most thorough vetting the department conducts, essentially only people who have actively participated in terrorism would be declared ineligible. It appears the department hasn't even bothered to think of a way to determine which people trying to receive U.S. taxpayer dollars have advocated terrorism.
Considering Europe's and the United Nations' longstanding indifference to Palestinian radicalism, the United States likely is the only party that can start to drain the cultural swamp. The stakes are high. If the United States doesn't put its full efforts toward real peace, what signal does that send to Israel and the Palestinians?
Joel Mowbray is an investigative journalist living in New York City.