By Elise Labott
If, as expected, the United Nations General Assembly votes Thursday to upgrade the Palestinians to non-member observer status, it could put about $500 million in U.S. aid at stake - not to mention the $100 million in monthly tax revenues Israel is threatening to withhold.
The new status would fall short of triggering U.S. legislation that automatically cuts all U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and any programs in the Palestinian territories, as well as aid to any organizations that recognize Palestine as a state. That's because the non-member designation falls short of being a full member state, which would give Palestine full voting rights in the in the U.N. General Assembly. The United States is vehemently opposed to member-state status for the Palestinians that doesn't stem from a peace deal with Israel.
But while Congress isn't mandated to cut U.S. aid, that doesn't mean it won't. Various senators are already proposing language to the National Defense Authorization Act to cut assistance to the Palestinians by 50% and U.S. fees to the United Nations by the same amount, should the effort by the Palestinians to gain recognition as a non-member observer state succeed in the General Assembly. It would also cut by 20% U.S. aid to any country voting to approve such a move. A larger group of senators proposed cutting off all funding if the vote goes through.
That threat was repeated Thursday morning in Washington.
"The last thing we want to do is break a relationship between the Palestinians that is mutually beneficial. But the day that the Palestinians use their UN status to try to marginalize Israel in the international criminal court it will be clear to us that we are investing in an unreliable partner. We are broke," said Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Two congressional committees partly cut off funds in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' bid for statehood in the U.N. Security Council last year. The hold on the security aid was lifted, but about $200 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance is still blocked. Given that the vote is largely symbolic, Congress may not take that step. But should the Palestinians move to take action against Israel in the International Criminal Court, which a non-member state is entitled to do if the members agree, aid would almost certainly be cut off. This would leave the Palestinians in dire straits, strengthen Hamas and risk the collapse of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, which could lead to renewed violence.
The vote will be seen as a diplomatic failure for the United States, which pressured the Palestinians against the move and lobbied hard with its international allies against voting for the measure. Its consequences will likely move the parties further away from the peace table. Not only has the Obama administration failed to forge a peace deal in its first term - something President Barack Obama pledged to do days after taking office - but whatever hopes Obama had of re-engaging in Mideast peacemaking during his second term will be close to impossible in the near term.