Senators question aid to Middle East |

Senators question aid to Middle East

WASHINGTON (AP) – The bountiful U.S. aid package for Egypt, unchallenged for two decades, was questioned Tuesday by a Republican senator, who said the government-supported press had ”been spewing anti-Semitism at an all-time high.”

Yasser Arafat also came under criticism by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for walking away ”from the best deal the Palestinians will likely ever see.”

”What more can Israel offer?” McConnell asked Secretary of State Colin Powell at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing into the Bush administration’s budget request for $15.2 billion for foreign operations – a boost of about 2 percent over this year. McConnell chairs the subcommittee.

Powell urged Congress not to cut the $2 billion ticketed for Egypt, which is second only to Israel’s nearly $3 billion in annual U.S. aid. He said Egypt, along with Jordan, was making a major contribution to end fighting between Israel and the Palestinians with a joint cease-fire proposal.

They ”play an important part in the region,” Powell said.

But McConnell cautioned: ”I do not view foreign assistance as an entitlement and will be reviewing more closely country-specific aid packages.”

For example, he questioned the justification for offering $75 million in assistance to Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza when no end to violence is in sight.

Referring to both Egypt and the Palestinians, he told Powell: ”It’s hard to see how any of them in a visible way have tried to move the process in the right direction.”

In Egypt, he said, ”government-sponsored newspapers support Adolf Hitler and incite violence against Jews and Israel. Is this kind of relationship worth the request of $2 billion?”

Similarly, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., urged the Bush administration to reassess the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians. She referred to a letter to President Bush from 60 senators in April accusing the ”highest level” of Palestinian security forces of planning terrorist attacks on Israel.

Powell agreed with McConnell that Israel last year made a generous offer to the Palestinians. It included statehood on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza and control over part of Jerusalem. But Arafat held out for sovereignty over east Jerusalem and a ”right of return” for millions of Palestinians to Israel.

Powell said he himself had been a target of attacks by the Egyptian press and had complained and received an apology from the government.

Later in the day the Bush administration was due to step up its face-to-face contact with the Palestinians, planning talks here this week with Arafat’s top deputy.

Although the Palestinian leader has not been invited to the White House yet, Mahmoud Abbas was due to see Powell later Tuesday, along with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is asking the Bush administration to find a mechanism that would lead to the end of Israel’s ”occupation” of Palestinian lands, said Hassan Abdel Rahman, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington.

This could involve proposals by a commission headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, which called for an end of Jewish settlement activity, and the joint cease-fire proposal by Egypt and Jordan, Rahman said.

The White House has not ruled out an invitation to Arafat to meet with Bush.

Abbas is in Washington for a medical checkup, which made it convenient for the White House and State Department to agree to the meetings with Powell and Rice without diplomatic fanfare.

The administration has been making a diplomatic effort to promote security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians and to set a course for reopening peace talks. The talks with Abbas, however, also will be held against a backdrop of recent violence.

Five Palestinian policemen manning a roadside checkpoint in the West Bank were killed by Israeli fire Monday, and Israeli helicopters rocketed Palestinian security targets in Gaza, destroying 10 armored vehicles.

Four Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers Tuesday; two Palestinians were killed Monday.

Powell pleaded anew for an end to the violence. ”We have got to do everything we can to get the cycle moving in the other direction,” he told CNN.

”We keep appealing to both sides to be restrained, not to use violence as a way of solving the problems that exist in the region, and we continue to give that message in a very, very strong and positive voice,” Powell said.

Powell also criticized Arafat for saying Israel would pay a heavy price for the slaying of five Palestinian policemen. ”That kind of language I don’t think is very helpful, especially during the time Israel is celebrating its anniversary,” he said.

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