WASHINGTON – President Bush plans to steer more money directly to the Palestinian Authority, congressional aides and a Bush administration official said Wednesday as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) began three days of meetings with White House officials and congressional leaders.
Most U.S. aid to the Palestinians has previously gone to private relief organizations out of concerns about corruption under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search). Abbas wants aid funneled to the authority, which he heads, as a show of U.S. confidence in his leadership, said Edward Abington, a retired U.S. diplomat who advises the Palestinians.
One of the aides said they expected Bush to announce that several tens of millions of dollars would go to the authority. The aide and the others spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not yet been made.
Abbas meets with Bush at the White House on Thursday. Direct assistance to the authority is allowed only if the president waives existing law.
The move could upset some members of Congress who say they still do not believe the authority should be trusted with U.S. assistance.
Congress has provided $200 million overall for the Palestinians for this year, and Bush has requested another $150 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already said most of that money would be channeled through the Palestinian Authority for specific projects.
Over the last two years, the Palestinian Authority has received several million dollars directly from the Bush administration to pay utility bills and for other expenses.
Abbas was spending most of Wednesday meeting with House and Senate members, before seeing Vice President Dick Cheney and Rice in the evening.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh told reporters the Palestinian leader was warmly received Wednesday by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other Senate leaders. He said Abbas highlighted the importance of an immediate return to the road map, which calls for establishment of a Palestinian state, and asked Frist for economic support to boost the ailing Palestinian economy.
During his U.S. visits, Abbas will point to a truce he secured with militant groups and reforms he made in his government. In return, officials say he will ask for intensified U.S. pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table
"We want a clear American position with regard to implementing the road map and we want economic support," Abbas told reporters after arriving in Washington on Tuesday.
The internationally backed road map peace plan has been long stalled with both sides, Israel and the Palestinians, blaming each other for the deadlock.
Neither side has fulfilled their obligations.
Abbas meets with Bush on Thursday, the highlight of a tightly packed schedule of visits with lawmakers, Jewish and Arab American leaders, and senior government officials.
The Palestinians have several grievances, mainly Israel's continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and their reluctance to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) has said his government will complete its plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements this summer before considering a return to the negotiating table. Sharon also demands that Abbas disarm militant groups.
The U.S. hopes the pullout will jump-start the peace process but Palestinians are skeptical, citing fears Israel will use the plan as an excuse to hold onto large chunks of the West Bank.
With color coded maps showing existing Jewish settlements, and Israeli plans for future expansion, Abbas hopes to convince Bush that his fears are not baseless.