WASHINGTON — The Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas have repeatedly been warned: Pursue statehood recognition at the United Nations and risk losing millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
For months, congressional Republicans and Democrats have threatened to cut off some $500 million in economic and security assistance to the Palestinians if they defy the United States and Israel by seeking statehood. The Americans and Israelis prefer negotiations between the sides leading to a two-state solution. Congress' forceful message has been delivered in letters to Abbas, through overwhelming bipartisan votes on resolutions and in fierce rhetoric.
"Current and future aid will be jeopardized if you abandon direct negotiations and continue your efforts," Reps. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chairwoman of the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, and Nita Lowey of New York, the panel's top Democrat, wrote to Abbas this summer, echoing a plea they made to the Palestinian leader in an April letter.
Now, faced with Abbas' pronouncement that he will ask the U.N. Security Council on Friday to back his statehood bid, angry lawmakers may exercise power the one way Congress can — by withholding Palestinian aid.
"The United States will reconsider its assistance program for the Palestinian Authority and other aspects of U.S.-Palestinian relations if they choose to pursue such a unilateral effort," 58 House Democrats said in a letter to European leaders imploring them to vote against Palestinian statehood and stand with the United States.
"A unilateral declaration of independence is simply rejectionism by another name . it takes away any motivation from the Palestinians to negotiate and deal with good faith with Israel," Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday in a conference call with reporters sponsored by the Hudson Institute and Touro College.
Chabot also pressed for a GOP-led effort to slash or withhold U.S. dues to the United Nations.
Former President Bill Clinton said cutting off aid would be a mistake, eliminating an option available to the Obama administration. The Obama administration and Europe made a last ditch effort Sunday to delay or avoid a showdown over the Palestinian bid.
"I think that everybody knows the U.S. Congress is the most pro-Israel parliamentary body in the world. They don't have to demonstrate that," Clinton said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
Republicans and Democrats traditionally have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with longtime ally Israel, reflected in the rousing reception Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received in May when he addressed Congress. Now, the politically charged environment is even more pro-Israel after President Barack Obama's Mideast policy played an oversized role in the Republican's surprise win in a special election in New York City last Tuesday.
Retired broadcasting executive Bob Turner defeated Democratic state Assemblyman David Weprin in a district that has three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans and is nearly 40 percent Jewish. Republicans focused on the Obama administration's policy that some Jews find insufficiently supportive of Israel and the president's urging of Israel to halt housing settlements in the West Bank.
Phil Singer, a political consultant and former aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, said there's often a "race between the two parties on who can be more pro-Israel."
In the aftermath of that House election, the perception is the Jewish voting bloc, which typically backs Democrats, is up for grabs, said Republican political consultant and former congressional aide John Feehery.
"This is only going to embolden Republicans to be more pro-Israel," he said.
In a speech Sunday to the Jewish National Fund, House Speaker John Boehner said U.S. support for Israel has been American policy since Democrat Harry Truman was president in the late 1940s.
"We're here to see that Israel continues to thrive and to make clear it is America's duty to stay by her side," the Ohio Republican told an audience in Cincinnati. "Not just as a broker or observer — but as a strong partner and reliable ally."
The Senate Appropriations Committee was working on finding a time this week to finalize a foreign aid spending bill and although the panel would act before any U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, a pre-emptive effort is possible from any of the committee members.
In the House, Republicans and Democrats have made it clear they will be watching the U.N. vote closely — and taking names.Comment on this story
The United States has vowed to veto any resolution in the Security Council granting statehood status to the Palestinians. Unclear, however, is what the Palestinians will seek in the broader, 193-member General Assembly, such as a lesser "nonmember state" observer status.
The timing of any congressional response and how severely lawmakers seek to punish through the power of the purse is uncertain. Any action may have to wait until October, after Congress' weeklong recess for the Jewish holidays.
Aaron David Miller, a former top State Department Mideast negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, said a congressional response is contingent on what the Palestinians pursue. In his comments Friday, Abbas did not rule out other, unspecified options, leaving him room to maneuver.
"Threats by members of Congress are a far cry from legislation," said Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank.