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U.S. Could Stop Aid Flow to Palestinians

If Hamas takes control of the Palestinian government, as now appears likely, all U.S. aid to the Palestinian people will be put under review, the Bush administration said Friday.

"We do not and will not give money to a terrorist organization," proclaimed White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack: "The law and our policies state that no money goes to terrorist organizations."

This year, the U.S. government is providing $150 million in U.S. assistance for Palestinian development and other needs, McCormack said. Another $84 million is distributed through the United Nations.

"The Palestinian people have humanitarian needs, they are a poor people," he said. But McCormack also said financial aid must be reviewed and said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would take this up when she meets in London Monday with U.N., European and Russian officials.

Together, they form the so-called Quartet that developed a roadmap or blueprint designed to steer Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks.

But that process appears in peril with Hamas' strong showing and likely control of a future Palestinian government.

The toughest task facing the United States is determining whether the peace process can proceed, and if so, how. The administration would have to find a way to negotiate with the Palestinians without talking directly to Hamas.

The militant Islamic group is sworn to destroy Israel and has conducted numerous terrorist operations against that country.

Urging Hamas to renounce terrorism, which the late Yasser Arafat did under U.S. urging in 1988, Bush said, "If your platform is the destruction of Israel it means you are not a partner in peace. And we're interested in peace."

At a White House news conference Thursday, Bush said a party that seeks Israel's destruction "is a party with which we will not deal." But he also said, "Peace is never dead because people want peace."

Bush himself had left open the possibility of halting aid to the Palestinians if their government winds up dominated by Hamas, a militant Islamic group listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization. This year, the Palestinians are receiving $150 million for development programs on the West Bank and in Gaza.

The threat was echoed on Capitol Hill by a nonbinding Senate resolution condemning Hamas and expressing support for halting assistance to the Palestinian government.

The symbolic resolution, crafted by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., says aid should be ended if the party controlling the Palestinian parliament advocates the destruction of Israel, which Hamas does. It was unclear when the Senate would vote on the proposal.

Congress' reluctance to continue U.S. financial support was also illustrated by lawmakers' comments, including remarks by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

"Hamas has shown that it prefers terrorism against innocent civilians to pursue its political aims, and the United States should play no role in assisting a majority terrorist parliament," Hastert said in a statement.

In a similar warning, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., a member of the GOP House leadership, said, "If Hamas does not join the peaceful nations of the world at the table of cooperation and peace, the consequences will be the loss of America's support and funding for the Palestinians."

Other members of Congress were also critical of Hamas' victory over the more mainstream Fatah Party. And Bush called on Abbas to remain in office.

Abbas said he was committed to reaching peace with Israel and suggested talks would be conducted through the Palestine Liberation Organization, a possible way around a Hamas-led government.

Meanwhile, a senior Lebanese official said Friday that the militant Palestinian group Hamas "needs to move forward on how to make peace with Israel."

But Saad Hariri, who heads the majority bloc in Lebanon's parliament, said before seeing Bush at the White House that the Palestinians were victims of oppression and it was a decision for Hamas to make. "It will take time," he told reporters.