Menu JTA Search

As Gaza Disengagement Nears, Israel Prepares to Ask U.S. for Aid

The extended bloody conflict in Iraq, just a few hundred miles from Jerusalem, makes this both the best and the worst of times for Israel to ask for hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance to get Jews out of the Gaza Strip. The director general of Israel’s treasury, Yossi Bachar, was in Washington this week to launch talks aimed at shaping Israel’s request for cash to soften the landing of thousands of settlers due to be evacuated this summer from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Bachar didn’t bring a specific figure to Tuesday’s meeting, attended by senior State Department and National Security Council officials, but a senior Israeli official told JTA that the amount to be requested from the United States was likely to reach $1.6 billion.

The request comes as Congress already is considering President Bush’s request for $82 billion in fast-track funds, mostly to be spent in Iraq, and at a time when the administration is cutting back on a wide variety of domestic programs.

Yet Bush’s need to persuade other nations to help foot the growing Iraq bill is driving his push for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make good on his pledge to leave Gaza. Significantly, E. Anthony Wayne, the assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, who chaired the meeting with Bachar, is Bush’s point man on financial reconstruction in Iraq.

“It’s not a time when Congress is looking to spend more money overseas,” said a congressional staffer familiar with Israel’s aid requests. “On the other hand, the overwhelming feeling is that Gaza disengagement is crucial for U.S. interests in the Middle East.”

Already there are signs that the Bush administration and Congress will use the funds as leverage to extract concessions from Israel.

The request jibes with the estimates Israeli officials have cited for the transfer — some $1 billion for new housing for the evacuated settlers and $600 million to build new bases.

Yet Americans and Israelis emphasize that the money Bachar is seeking would not go directly to assisting settlers. That’s because the United States historically has opposed settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and congressional appropriators would be unlikely to pay to undo a policy the United States has warned for years was a mistake.

Instead, the money is to be spent developing the Galilee and Negev, the Israeli regions likeliest to absorb settlers.

Bush lent his weight to the plan last week when he met with Sharon at his Texas ranch.

“The prime minister believes that developing the Negev and the Galilee regions is vital to ensuring a vibrant economic future for Israel,” Bush said. “I support that goal, and we will work together to make his plans a reality.”

Israel has worked hard to make the request palatable by attaching it to projects favored by Americans: the development of transportation infrastructure and business parks that would promote private enterprise and employment; and assistance to Bedouin communities in the Negev, to show that the assistance isn’t intended only for Jews.

Congressional staffers wondered why Israel didn’t come up with the proposal in time to be included in Bush’s $82 billion fast-track request, which includes $200 million in assistance for the Palestinians.

Congress has at least until October to consider routine budget requests. Fast track, or “supplemental” requests, are considered quickly, and as they come.

“As it is, $1.6 billion is more than half of the aid Israel gets annually,” a staffer said. “It would look a lot smaller as part of an $82 billion package.”

One option might be to wrap the funds into Bush’s next request for fast-track money for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, likely to come toward the end of the year. That also would provide Israel with an incentive to make sure the withdrawal goes smoothly.

In the meantime, legislators are using Israel’s outstretched hand to extract concessions.

When Shimon Peres, the Israeli deputy prime minister who is to run the civilian part of the disengagement plan, was in Washington two weeks ago to make the case for U.S. assistance, the powerful chairman of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), criticized what he said was Israel’s mistreatment of West Bank Christians.

Hyde said Israel’s West Bank security barrier and its settlement policy are “drastically undermining the mission of Christian institutions and the social fabric of their communities in the Holy Land.”

Peres was caught off guard by Hyde’s complaint, and replied that Palestinian Christians face graver threats from Palestinian Muslims than from Israel.

A staffer close to Hyde apparently leaked the information to Robert Novak, a columnist who never has been friendly to Israel. It was an extraordinary breach of the committee’s privacy etiquette, but the message was clear: Improvements for Christians, such as alterations to the route of Israel’s West Bank security barrier that would ease hardship on Christian communities, would help ensure support for the cash Israel is seeking.

Other congressmen who are unhappy with restrictions that Congress — acting at the urging of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — placed on the $200 million in fast-track aid to the Palestinians may now try to link the two: Direct aid for the Palestinians in exchange for assistance with Israel’s withdrawal.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) surprised his colleagues last week when he blasted provisions Congress wrote into the package that would keep the cash from going directly to the Palestinian Authority, and instead would channel it through nongovernmental organizations, provisions authored by AIPAC. AIPAC wants guarantees that the Palestinian Authority has severed its terrorist affiliations before it receives direct aid.

“If we are going to do business with the Palestinian Authority, and are going to expect them to be accountable for keeping things safe and providing a basic level of social services so people are able to eat, we should deal directly with them,” Alexander said.

The White House also might see an opportunity. It has raised the volume in recent days in its complaints about Sharon’s refusal to stop expansion of West Bank settlements that he plans to keep permanently as part of Israel.

Spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House would seek an explanation following Israel’s announcement that it planned to add 50 homes to the Elkana settlement.

“The president made his views very clear last week, as well, that Israel should not expand settlements,” McClellan said Monday.

Agitating against the aid from the opposite end of the pro-Israel spectrum will be such U.S. Jewish groups as the Zionist Organization of America, which argue that the disengagement endangers Israel. They hope to draw 50,000 protesters to an event in New York’s Central Park on June 5 that would press against any U.S. support for the pullout.

U.S. officials may ask Israel to lower the price tag, but at the end of the day, Bush is too invested in the success of the withdrawal not to drive Israel’s request through Congress, observers believe.

AIPAC is ready to push to make sure Israel gets the assistance. Americans for Peace Now also is committed to pushing it through.

“There are very legitimate reasons for Israel to be requesting additional aid around disengagement, including the moving of military equipment out of Israel, and in redeveloping parts of the Negev and the Galilee,” Lewis Roth, APN’s assistant executive director, said.

NEXT STORY