- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

President Bush has approved $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, less than a month after the death of leader Yasser Arafat, to help Palestinians elect a successor.

“They are in a serious financial situation right now,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “We’re sending the message with this financial assistance that we want to help as they move forward on elections.”

Mr. Bush waived congressional restrictions barring such direct aid, although he bowed to lawmakers’ demands that the money not be earmarked for the Jan. 9 elections or the salaries of Palestinian officials. Instead, the money will pay off debts to Israeli utilities, which will free up Palestinians to spend more of their own funds for the elections.

“That money is going to help the Palestinian Authority meet its budget obligations,” said State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli. “It will be subject to, I think, very, very stringent and proven transparency and accountability provisions.”

Those assurances did not satisfy critics, such as commentator Micah Halpern, who said despite the Nov. 11 death of Mr. Arafat, corruption is still rampant among his lieutenants.

“Look, these are not new leaders in the Palestinian Authority. They’re the same leaders,” he said. “The American people would be very much in favor of giving money to the Palestinians if the Palestinians invested a little bit of their own money in the election process.”

He added that until the Palestinians demonstrate complete transparency with all funds, Mr. Bush is “making a big mistake” by giving them money.

But Mr. McClellan insisted Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad “is strongly committed to transparency and openness with those funds.”

It was only the second time the White House has given Palestinians direct aid without approval from Congress, which for the last decade has preferred to help the Palestinians through third parties, such as the United Nations. The first installment of direct aid came last year when Mr. Bush gave $20 million to shore up the political fortunes of Mahmoud Abbas, who nonetheless went on to abandon his bid to replace Mr. Arafat.

Of that initial payment, $9 million went to pay utility bills and the remainder went for infrastructure repairs, according to the State Department.

“That $20 million was fully accounted for and used in the way it was intended,” Mr. Ereli said last month. “We only gave it when we were assured and confident that the institutions and processes to guarantee accountability and transparency were in place.”

He added that “the accounting and reporting on that was, in our opinion, airtight.”

Through the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, the United States gives about $200 million to the Palestinians each year, compared with $3 billion in direct aid to Israel. While the $20 million announced yesterday is a relatively small sum, Mr. Bush hopes the overture engenders some good will as he prepares to re-engage in the Middle East peace process in his second term.

“I believe it is very possible for there to be a Palestinian state with the institutions of democracy in place that will allow for leadership to emerge that listens to the demands of the Palestinian people,” Mr. Bush said Monday. “And when such a state takes place, it will make peace much more possible with the Israelis.”

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