- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Israeli officials have begun to question the wisdom of an economic blockade of the Hamas-led Palestinian government, even as the House of Representatives yesterday overwhelmingly approved a near-total ban on U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

The question of economic policy toward Hamas, which does not recognize Israel and is condemned by Washington as a terrorist organization, was a prime topic at Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s meeting with President Bush yesterday on his first Washington trip since his election in March.

Just before leaving for Washington, Mr. Olmert approved the release of $11 million of some $220 million in Palestinian tax and customs revenue that the Jewish state has frozen since Hamas took power. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, told Israeli lawmakers last week an international aid embargo was unlikely to undermine Hamas.

“The economic pressure in my view will not hasten the downfall of Hamas,” he said, “nor will it necessarily reduce the public support for the Hamas government.”

Haim Malka, a Middle East fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Olmert and other top Israelis “fear they have a humanitarian disaster on their doorstep and that doesn’t make them feel more secure.”

“There is real concern in Israel that isolating the Palestinians is going to hurt everyone, and they’re conveying that message to Washington,” he said.

Mr. Bush, in a joint press conference with Mr. Olmert after their meeting, confirmed the U.S. government was trying to find a “mechanism to support the Palestinian people” without having to make direct payments to Hamas-led ministries.

Mr. Olmert, citing the release of the Palestinian tax revenue, said his government was prepared to spend “any amount of money to save the lives of innocent Palestinians,” who he said were suffering only because of the “brutality and intransigence of their own government.”

But the House voted 361-37 for a bill that blocks virtually all U.S. aid to non-health private groups working in the West Bank and Gaza, denies visas for members of the Palestinian Authority, and reduces U.S. dues payments to the United Nations by the amount of U.N. support for the Palestinians.

The Bush administration opposes the bill, which also has divided leading U.S. Jewish organizations. The State Department issued a statement saying the bill would tie the president’s hands.

But Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican and former House majority leader, said during the debate that the Palestinians would have to face the consequences of their decision to elect Hamas.

“American aid to the Palestinian people must be predicated on their rejection of terrorism,” he said.

The U.S. drive to starve Hamas of direct aid has proven effective. The threat of sanctions has led banks in the Middle East to refuse even to process aid funds deposited in accounts for the Palestinian government by other countries.

But the international stand against Hamas has frayed in recent weeks, as stories have mounted of hardship and collapsing services in Palestinian areas. Malaysia and Turkey, two Muslim-majority countries with strong ties to Washington, both criticized the aid ban yesterday.

European Union diplomats are expected to outline a plan today in Brussels to channel tens of millions of dollars through international financial institutions for health, energy and other welfare programs for the Palestinian people, bypassing the Hamas government.

U.S. endorsement of the EU program is considered vital if lenders such as the World Bank are to participate.

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