U.S. lawmakers: Bush's Mideast policy led to rise of Hamas

By News Agencies

Haaretz

Shvat 18, 5766

WASHINGTON - Mistakes in U.S. Middle East policy have made America less safe and aided the militant group Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections, Democratic and Republican lawmakers told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday.

Hamas's win last month in the Palestinian territories and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's rise in Egypt have fueled criticisms over U.S. President George W. Bush's strategy of pushing for democracy in the Middle East.

"This administration seems to have a tin ear when it comes to the Middle East and that tin ear is making us less safe," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, told Rice at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

The California Democrat suggested U.S. policies in the Middle East, as well as in Latin American nations Bolivia and Venezuela whose governments are hostile to Washington, were boosting the election chances of anti-American candidates.

Rice said it took time for democracy to take hold.

"Yes there are going to be some outcomes that are not perfect from the American point of view, but I don't think that our policy can be that you can only have elections if you plan to elect candidates that are friendly to America," she said.

"If the option is not to hold elections and not to give people their say then that is an untenable position for the United States," Rice added.

Rice said it was wrong to imply the Middle East had been stable before the Bush administration launched its democracy push, arguing that 60 years of U.S. foreign policy caused a "freedom deficit" that was difficult to fix in a couple of years.

"It is too much to expect ... those political parties to develop overnight," she said.

"I don't see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better. I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq. I think they're getting worse in Iran," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who often veers from the party line. Hagel also was pessimistic about implications of the militant group Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections last month.

On Iraq, the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden, countered Rice's optimism about political unity among Iraq's squabbling ethnic groups.

"I'm not hopeful," Biden told Rice. "The policy seems not to be succeeding."

Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island took aim at Rice for not doing enough to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party was defeated by Hamas in the Jan. 25 Palestinian election.

"The whole year, 2005, nothing was done, opportunities missed and now we have a very, very disastrous situation of a terrorist organization winning an election," said Chafee.

"Why didn't we take advantage of these opportunities (to stop Hamas)?" asked Chafee.

Rice said she had worked as hard as she could on the Middle East peace process. Hamas's victory was not due to any failure of U.S. foreign policy but rather a backlash against Fatah which many Palestinians viewed as corrupt, she said.

"There are times when elections turn out in ways we wish they did not. Clearly the election of Hamas is a difficult moment in the prospects for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Rice told the hearing.

Hamas's victory came as a surprise to the United States and Chafee said Washington should be prepared for a rise in popularity of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

In elections last year, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the biggest opposition group. This week, the Egyptian government postponed local elections for two years in a move Islamists said was aimed at maintaining the ruling party's grip on power.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota jumped to Rice's defense over her department's democracy agenda.

"Democracy is a messy thing," said Coleman. "These are messy times now," he said.

U.S. House urges halt of direct aid to PA
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution on Wednesday urging that direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority be stopped as long as the militant group Hamas, which is expected to form a new Palestinian government, calls for Israel's destruction.

The nonbinding resolution expressing the sense of Congress was approved 418-1. The Senate passed the measure earlier this month.

The Bush administration is evaluating its aid program to the Palestinians following Hamas' stunning victory in Palestinian elections over the Fatah movement.

"Until Hamas changes course, dismantles its terrorist organization, and agrees to work towards a peaceful settlement with Israel, no taxpayer money should be provided to support the Palestinian government," said House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, said the resolution "sends a strong message" to the Palestinians, without trying to force the Bush administration into a policy before the new Palestinian government is formed.

A number of House members are pushing binding legislation to halt U.S. aid and withhold U.S. funds to the United Nations equal to the amount the world body provides the Palestinians.

For 2006, the United States has budgeted $150 million in assistance to the Palestinians, and a further $84 million to the UN fund.