WASHINGTON—Defying the Bush administration, the House of Representatives is set to pass legislation Tuesday that would ban direct U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian government and restrict money to private aid groups that operate in Gaza and the West Bank.
The measure is intended to isolate Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority last January. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization. The House measure has widespread bipartisan support.
The White House objects to the bill on the ground that it wants to retain flexibility in Middle East diplomacy. The measure has also split the Israeli lobby in Washington.
The House vote is scheduled for the day that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is to meet with President Bush during a three-day Washington visit and one day before Olmert is to address a joint session of Congress.
The Bush administration has already stopped direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian government. In a statement earlier this month, the White House said that the House legislation was unnecessary. It said the bill "constrains the executive's flexibility to use sanctions, if appropriate, as tools to address rapidly changing circumstances."
The legislation would also close Palestinian Authority diplomatic missions in the United States and refuse visas for Palestinian Authority officials. It wouldn't permit the use of federal funds to establish any contacts with Hamas until Hamas abandons its call for the destruction of Israel.
Under the bill, the United States would be able to provide only limited humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank through non-governmental organizations. Assistance beyond food, water, medicine and sanitation would require a presidential waiver.
A similar but less extensive bill awaits Senate action. Leaders there have set no date for a vote.
The House bill, introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., has 295 sponsors from both parties and has been vigorously supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby.
But other groups that advocate on behalf of Israel have pressed lawmakers to vote against it, arguing that the sanctions would isolate not only Hamas but also other, more moderate leaders, such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah Party.
"It is a damaging symbol," said M.J. Rosenberg, the director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, which opposes the bill. "It plays as another indication that the Americans can't distinguish between their friends and their enemies."
The Arab American Institute also called for the legislation's defeat.
"This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bill rescinds the president's ability to waive sanctions in the interest of U.S. national security (including the results of future Palestinian elections or in the event of a natural disaster) and offers no support to Palestinian moderates," the institute said in a statement.
Debate over the legislation erupted into an angry exchange of letters recently after Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., accused an AIPAC activist of threatening her for voting against the legislation when it emerged from the House International Relations Committee.
McCollum, in a letter to AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, accused a Minnesota lobbyist who volunteers on behalf of AIPAC of telling her chief of staff that "McCollum's support for terrorists will not be tolerated."
In a letter to McCollum, the lobbyist, Amy Rotenberg, denied making any threats and called McCollum's accusation "a serious distortion."
"I was and am astonished that a private citizen's phone call to a member of Congress would result in this overheated response. There were no threats by me in my call to her staff member," Rotenberg said in an interview late Monday.
Still, McCollum's claim prompted Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who supports the House bill, to rise to McCollum's defense.
"For anyone to indicate, in so noxious a way, that people whose views might differ from their own support America's enemies, is an approach reminiscent of the Taliban," Ackerman said in statement released on Friday.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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