U.S. lawmakers may ease ‘coup’ ban on aid to Egypt


U.S. lawmakers will begin to vote as soon as next week on legislation that could continue aid to Egypt even if the Obama administration determines that the ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi was a military coup, lawmakers and aides said on Thursday.

The United States currently sends $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt each year, but the military coup label would cut off the flow under a U.S. law dating to the 1980s.

As a result, the White House and State Department have so far refused to characterize Mursi's ouster as a coup, with administration officials often resorting to verbal gymnastics to avoid using the word.

Republican U.S. Representative Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House of Representatives subcommittee in charge of the aid, said her panel was considering allowing more flexibility, such as language that would allow the aid to continue if doing so were deemed to be in the U.S. national security interest.

The law as currently written bans the administration from waiving the restriction, even if the administration judges it to be important for national security.

“There is not a waiver (provision) in the coup legislation,” Granger told Reuters in an interview. “That could be changed, however, if the Congress says we are going to allow a waiver.”

PAKISTAN AID PRECEDENT?

Congress approved President George W. Bush's request to allow aid to Pakistan's government after the September 11, 2001, attacks, despite the ouster of its government in a coup.

Lawmakers said a similar bill was one possibility for Egypt. They said another possibility would be rewriting the law on foreign aid to allow waivers for national security reasons more routinely.

The House subcommittee is due to begin considering aid to Egypt this month, possibly as soon as next week.

The Senate subcommittee also expects to vote on its version of the legislation this month, likely during the week of July 23, aides said.

After the state and foreign operations subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations committees debate and vote on their versions of the bill, the measures will be voted on by the full committees before being sent for a vote by the full House and Senate.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate panel, has said he considers Mursi's ouster a coup, although the ultimate determination is up to the administration. A spokesman said the Senate panel is not now considering a provision in its legislation to waive the coup requirement.

However, Senator John Boozman, a Republican subcommittee member, said he was open to the possibility of a waiver, depending on the situation in Egypt, noting the long-term close relationship between U.S. officials and the U.S. military.

“With the situation as it is now, I would certainly be open to having that discussion,” he told Reuters. “And right now my tendency would be to vote for the waiver and, again, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.”

President Barack Obama asked Congress to appropriate $1.55 billion in aid for Egypt for fiscal 2014, including $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance.

Committee members and aides from both panels said it was too soon to comment on whether they would approve that level of aid, because the situation in Egypt is changing so rapidly.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

U.S. to give Syrian rebels medical, food aid, not arms


The United States said on Thursday it will for the first time give non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels and more than double its aid to Syria's civilian opposition, disappointing opponents of President Bashar Assad clamoring for Western weapons.

The U.S. cast the aid as a way to bolster the rebels' popular support. It will include medical supplies, food for rebel fighters and $60 million to help the civil opposition provide basic services like security, education and sanitation.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new steps after a meeting of 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the “Friends of Syria” group.

The aid did not appear to entirely satisfy the Syrian National Council opposition, a fractious Cairo-based group that has struggled to gain traction inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.

“Many sides … focus (more) on the length of the rebel fighter's beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed,” Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib said at an appearance with Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.

TALKS ON PRIME MINISTER POSTPONED

In what analysts described as a sign of disappointment, Syria's political opposition has postponed talks to choose the leader of a provisional government, two opposition sources told Reuters in Beirut.

Opposition leaders hoped a Saturday meeting in Istanbul would elect a prime minister to operate in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, threatened by a slide into chaos as the conflict between Assad's forces and insurgents nears its second anniversary.

While one source said the meeting might happen later in the week, a second source said it had been put off because the three most likely candidates for prime minister had reservations about taking the role without more concrete international support.

“The opposition has been increasingly signalling that it is tired of waiting and no one serious will agree to be head of a government without real political and logistical support,” said Syrian political commentator Hassan Bali, who lives in Germany.

Bali said the U.S. and other members of the core “Friends of Syria” nations appeared intent “on raising the ante against Assad but are not sure how.”

A final communique said participants would “coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defence”.

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. has given $385 million in humanitarian aid but President Barack Obama has so far refused to give arms, arguing it is difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.

On Thursday, however, Kerry said the U.S. would for the first time provide assistance – in the form of medical supplies and the standard U.S. military ration known as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs – to the fighters.

A U.S. official told reporters it would give the aid only to carefully vetted fighters, adding the U.S. was worried that “extremists” opposed to democracy, human rights and tolerance were gaining ground in the country.

“Those members of the opposition who support our shared values … need to set an example of a Syria where daily life is governed neither by the brutality of the Assad regime nor by the agenda of al Qaeda affiliated extremists,” the official said.

If sending non-lethal assistance goes smoothly, it could conceivably offer a model for providing weaponry should Obama ultimately decide to do so.

The continued U.S. refusal to send weapons may compound the frustration that prompted the coalition to say last week it would shun the Rome talks. It attended only under U.S. pressure.

Many in the coalition say Western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Assad.

However, a European diplomat held out the possibility of Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the insurgents.

With fighting raging on largely sectarian lines, French President Francois Hollande said at a Moscow summit that new partners were needed to broker talks on ending the crisis, winning guarded support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We think that this dialogue must find a new form so that it speaks to all parties,” said Hollande, giving few details of his proposal.

Putin said Russia – one of Assad's staunchest allies – would look at Hollande's proposal, “which I think we could consider with all our partners and try to carry out.”

REBELS WANT ANTI-TANK, ANTI-AIRCRAFT ARMS

Russia has said Assad's departure must not be a precondition for talks and a political solution, while the West has sided with Syria's opposition in demanding his removal from power.

Kerry's offer of medical aid and food rations fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the tables against Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.

It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armoured personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.

Last week the European Union opened the way for direct aid to Syrian rebels, but did not lift an arms embargo on Syria.

Kerry said the U.S. role should not be judged in isolation but in the context of what other nations will do.

“What we are doing … is part of a whole,” he said. “I am absolutely confident … that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact of the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”

Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Roger Atwood

Israel plans for quake aid to Palestinians


Israel said on Tuesday it had set up a mechanism to get aid to the Palestinians in the event of a major earthquake.

A 5.5-magnitude quake rattled Israel and the occupied West Bank on Friday, reminding residents of their vulnerability to the Syria-African Rift, a northern extension of Africa’s Rift Valley.

“The working assumption is that they (Palestinians) do not have the means to deal with such a disaster on their own,” said Alon Rozen, director-general of Israel’s Civil Defense Ministry.

Given Israel’s control of the West Bank, it would, in the event of a major quake, host a United Nations aid distribution center to receive relief from abroad for Israelis and Palestinians.

The last big quake in the region in 1927 killed hundreds of people. Such events tend to recur every 80 or 90 years.

Rozen said Israel decided last year to devote new attention to earthquake preparedness. “The aspect of international aid for the Palestinians was something we had not dealt with. Last September, we realized this was a shortfall.”

A U.N. official confirmed there was coordination with Israel, but the Palestinians said they had yet to be consulted.

“We asked the United Nations years ago to create safe corridors for receiving foreign aid in case of catastrophes,” Major-General Ahmed Rezek, head of the Palestinian civil emergency services, said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

A senior Israeli military officer said his forces were on standby to provide relief to Jewish settlers in the West Bank but not to the much bigger Palestinian population.

“Were they to request help, I’m sure we would be happy to provide it,” said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.N. official, who asked not to be named, said a Palestinian request for Israeli assistance in the West Bank would be standard procedure under such circumstances.

More challenging would be the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory whose Islamist Hamas administration is hostile to the Jewish state.

Israel, which keeps the enclave under naval blockade while allowing some commercial traffic across its land border, has held preliminary internal discussions on how to deliver emergency assistance, Rozen said.

Talks on founding an independent Palestinian state are deadlocked.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Tim Pearce and Janet Lawrence

House committee set to pass tougher conditions for PA aid


A House committee is expected to advance a bill that would and toughen conditions for funding for the Palestinians.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee is likely to approve the measure, which also mandates moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, on Wednesday.

The State Department financing bill would make funding for the PA conditional on the Obama administration proving that “no member of Hamas or any other foreign terrorist organization serves in any policy position in a ministry, agency, or instrumentality of the Palestinian Authority” and that “the Palestinian Authority has halted all anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian Authority-controlled electronic and print media and in schools, mosques, and other institutions it controls, and is replacing these materials, including textbooks, with materials that promote tolerance, peace, and coexistence with Israel.”

The new language, drafted by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the committee’s chairwoman, would broaden existing U.S. policy of not dealing with PA governments that include Hamas ministers to include lower-level employees, and would make the provable exculpation of incitement a condition for funding. It also limits the president’s ability to waive the policy for national security reasons.

The bill would remove the waiver that has allowed successive presidents since Bill Clinton to delay moving the embassy to Jerusalem, setting a Jan. 1, 2014 deadline for the move. The bill must pass the entire House of Representatives before facing reconciliation with the U.S. Senate version; the latter’s tougher provisions are unlikely to survive reconciliation.