Congress officially is lined up behind President Bush's grand vision of Palestinian democracy -- but it wants details along with that vision.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives' powerful International Relations Committee met last week, right after two congressional resolutions overwhelmingly endorsing Bush's call for a Palestinian state were passed.
The lofty language of those resolutions behind them, Republicans and Democrats on the committee made clear that they now want facts: Where should the $350 million that Bush is asking for -- and which almost quintupled recent requests -- go? How should it be monitored? And should strings be attached?
"We have few details at this point about the administration's plans for assistance to the Palestinians," Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) said Feb. 10, "but I'm inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on assistance to the Palestinians in the forthcoming months. However, we expect that we will receive promptly any required authorization legislation, and the administration will respond fully and in a timely manner to any legitimate questions that may be raised about the package."
So far, at least, the administration isn't getting any clearer. In his formal requests to Congress to put $200 million of the requested $350 million in an $82 billion war-on-terror package, Bush did not expand on his goals beyond the broad outlines he put forward in his State of the Union speech Feb. 2.
"Following the recent historic election held by the Palestinians, this request includes $200 million to reinforce these positive political developments by supporting the development of economic opportunity and democratic institutions," said a fact sheet attached to the White House request. "This money will be used to develop infrastructure and support critical sectors like education, home construction and basic services."
One clue to where the money might go is State Department action in spending $40 million in pre-approved funds, separate from the $350 million Bush requested.
That money is going to water infrastructure, education, job creation and health care -- all distributed through nongovernmental organizations and not directly to the Palestinian Authority. That's certain to assuage concerns by some in Congress and in the pro-Israel community, who have noted that money directed to Palestinian aid in the past often ended up lining the pockets of corrupt Palestinian officials.
Until Bush comes up with more details about his request, however, the powerful members of Congress who approve the funds are looking elsewhere for answers.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee -- which has the final say on the request -- rushed into the end of a Feb. 9 Capitol Hill lunch for Natan Sharansky, the Israeli Cabinet minister who has the president's ear with his theory that stable peace can be made only with democratic regimes.
Lowey apologized for being late and asked Sharansky how he thought the request should be handled. Sharansky said the money should go to NGOs.
"That's one of the most important things -- to make sure it goes straight to people and not to bureaucracies," Sharansky said.
The spectacle of one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington chasing a foreigner for advice underscored the degree to which members of Congress felt the need to fill in the gaps in Bush's vision.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) put it most succinctly, toward the end of three hours of expert testimony from three top Jewish thinkers and one Palestinian: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Danielle Pletka, a former top Republican Senate staffer and American Enterprise Institute vice president; former top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross; and Ziad Asali, who heads the American Task Force on Palestine and who was an official U.S. observer in last month's P.A. elections.
"What do you think our role should be, if you think we have a role at all in determining how the money is spent]," Jackson Lee asked.
Despite the broad range of views at the table, all four panelists agreed on Congress' role: oversight, oversight, oversight.
"Congress has always been the feet-to-the-fire agency in the peace process," Pletka said. "Congress has always been, in a very bipartisan way, the branch of government that has been most willing to do very, very serious oversight to ensure that aid is being used properly, that it is being directed correctly."
A few minutes later, Asali, Pletka's ideological opposite, echoed the thought and urged assurances of Palestinian accountability.
One powerful Democrat wanted accountability elsewhere as well -- among Gulf Arab states that have not made good on hundreds of millions of dollars in aid pledges to the Palestinians.
"Many Americans join us in wanting to help the Palestinian people, but we can't want to help them more than the Arabs themselves do," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee. "That is why I intend to pursue an initiative that will condition our aid on the demonstrated performance of oil-rich Arab states in providing assistance to the Palestinians."