WASHINGTON Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat of New York, has placed a hold on $86 million in proposed security assistance to the embattled Palestinian Arab president, Mahmoud Abbas, at the request of a Republican colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
The hold on the funding comes after Mr. Abbas signed a compact last week in Mecca with the leaders of Hamas, the Iranian-supported Palestinian Arab party that now controls most of the ministries in the Palestinian Authority. That deal, which has come under fire from Israeli leaders, would commit Mr. Abbas in principle to a national unity government without requiring Hamas to recognize Israel or prior international agreements to renounce and fight terrorism. The deal also obligates Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party and Hamas to adhere to a cease-fire in intra-Palestinian Arab fighting.
President Bush authorized the $86 million on January 31 as part of his administration's new strategy to challenge Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East. As part of the "Sunni" strategy, American counterterrorism operatives late last year began training a security service loyal to Mr. Abbas in Jericho. Since then, the training has continued in Egypt and Jordan, according to two Bush administration officials.
Yesterday, Ms. Lowey, who is chairwoman of the House subcommittee that funds the federal foreign operations budget, confirmed in an e-mailed statement that she had placed the hold on the funding in order to learn more about the security training. "Early last week, I placed a hold on the $86 million," she said. "It is imperative that we have a fuller understanding of exactly what the funding is for and what the situation is on the ground." She added, "Last Thursday's Mecca Agreement raised additional questions."
A spokesman for the State Department said on Monday that it would provide information to any lawmakers who requested it.
The original push for delaying the funding for security training came from Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who first asked Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the Democratic chairman of the committee, to place a hold on the $86 million. Only committee chairman are allowed to place information-related holds on foreign operations funding.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Lantos, Lynne Weil, said the congressman declined Ms. Ros-Lehtinen's request in January because the White House had yet to announce its intention to send the money to the Palestinian Authority. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen then took up the matter with Ms. Lowey, who placed the hold on the funding last week.
The $86 million, intended for the training of a small security service loyal to Mr. Abbas, has been a worry for America's pro-Israel lobby since Mr. Abbas signed the Mecca agreement with Hamas. Essentially, those funds were to be used to train soldiers to fight Hamas in what emerged late last year as a near civil war between the Palestinian Arab factions in Gaza.
Secretary of State Rice has publicly praised Mr. Abbas as a partner for peace and is pressing him and his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, to begin land for peace negotiations, sidelining Hamas.
Mr. Abbas this week dispatched envoys to Western capitals to appeal to those governments to lift some financial and banking sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. Hamas's victory in the January parliamentary elections last year triggered the sanctions that forced Jordan's Arab Bank to end its relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Reuters reported yesterday that the effort to get the financial penalties lifted has run into resistance. "I am finding it hard to sell the agreement," Reuters quoted one of the aides dispatched by Mr. Abbas as saying. "Some are hesitant, others are unconvinced, others still say they have to wait and see what the Quartet will decide in their February 21 meeting."