With barely a week to go before the Palestinian Authority (PA) seeks a vote on statehood at the United Nations, members of U.S. Congress have begun to stage a lively competition for the most elaborately punitive legislative response. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has prepared a bill that would withhold funds "from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission," a measure that cleverly kills two abhorred birds -- the United Nations and the Palestinians -- with one stone. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, did her one better with a measure that would eliminate bilateral military assistance for any country that voted for statehood, thus punishing dozens of America's allies for expressing a difference of opinion. But Rep. Joe Walsh, a right-wing Republican from Illinois, took the cake with a resolution endorsing Israel's right to annex the West Bank should the PA go ahead with the vote, thus putting an end to a two-state solution. Walsh has proudly noted that he is copying a radical right-wing bill introduced into the Knesset.
This cynical bidding war demonstrates that blind partnership for Israel crosses both partisan and confessional lines: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists should note that Christians, not Jews, have sponsored much of this legislative blackmail. Fortunately, none of it has a chance of becoming law; the Senate is unlikely even to take up any of these measures. But there is one bill that sounds just sane enough to pose a genuine threat: a House subcommittee has inserted language into an appropriations bill that would cut U.S. budgetary support to the PA should the Palestinians go ahead with the U.N. vote. Compared with all the loony bills, says Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, the liberal Israel lobbying group, "only cutting Palestinian aid begins to look like a compromise position."
Some compromise. Right now, the United States provides slightly more than $500 million a year to the Palestinian Authority. Of that, $200 million goes straight into the Palestinian budget. It is these "Economic Support Funds" that the House measure targets. That's only about 15 percent of the PA's $1.3 billion budget; but the Palestinians already have a $600 million deficit and stopped paying public salaries last month. Unless the Saudis or other Gulf Arabs make up the difference -- and it's their failure to make promised payments that has created the shortfall -- the enormous progress that the PA has made in building a state could grind to a halt. It's possible, though unlikely, that an additional $200 million shortfall could lead the PA to collapse. But it's nearly certain that the government's legitimacy will suffer -- and that United States will be blamed.
Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat and the ranking member on the House committee overseeing foreign aid, has been a leading supporter of the move to threaten the cut in funding. Unlike Walsh, who has said, "There is no such thing as a two-state solution" and believes that peace will come through "Israel having sovereignty over the whole land," Lowey has been a strong supporter of the PA's state-building process and the U.S. funding that has helped make it possible. I asked why she was prepared to put all that in jeopardy to punish the Palestinians for seeking a vote on statehood. "There has to be a line in the sand," she said. The unilateral bid for statehood undermines the peace process. "The Palestinians," Lowey said, "will have to deal with the consequences."
But it's not just the Palestinians who will bear the consequences. Anything that jeopardizes the authority of the PA -- and by extension the moderate Fatah faction -- opens the door to its rival, Hamas, which of course would truly bring the peace process to a halt. And anger over an American decision to not only obstruct the Palestinian bid for statehood but punish its citizens will prove costly for the United States in a new Middle East where public opinion -- and people power -- increasingly matters.
I asked Lowey whether she worried about these consequences. "I worry," she said, "about the Palestinian Authority going to the U.N." She wasn't thinking about the consequences; that was the Palestinians' job. At moments like this, I can't help feeling that Congress should not be allowed to make foreign policy.