As Costs of Peace Process Rise, U.S. Anxious to Ensure Success

The price the United States and the international committee likely will pay for Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer is mounting by the day — and top U.S. officials are making it clear to both Israelis and Palestinians that they want results. Top U.S. officials mandated with making the withdrawal happen testified Thursday at a special session of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, saying that the cost of Palestinian redevelopment after the Israeli withdrawal could reach $3 billion a year.

That’s apart from the hundreds of millions of dollars that Israel plans to request from the United States to help move its forces out of Gaza and part of the northern West Bank and to develop areas of Israel where settlers are likely to head.

The high stakes clearly make the officials anxious to ensure post-withdrawal success.

“Time is short,” David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told the committee. “The main challenges can be divided into two categories, improving the security situation and creating the conditions for growth in the Palestinian economy.”

The toughest language was reserved for the Palestinian Authority over its failure to fully reform its security forces.

“Overall Palestinian performance on confronting violence has been far from satisfactory, and this is a real shortfall and area of concern,” Welch said.

Lt. Gen. William Ward, the Bush administration’s top security envoy to the region, was slightly more generous, saying, “There are arrests being made, albeit not to the degree that I would like to see.”

Ward credited the Palestinians with beginning to destroy the arms-smuggling tunnels from Egypt that Israel is concerned will help terrorist groups re-arm for a post-withdrawal onslaught.

The general said he believed the Palestinians now understand the need to consolidate some 16 security services into three, but still have a long way to go. One obstacle: The security forces have become a “social welfare net” for tens of thousands of “policemen” who drew salaries but don’t actually work, Ward said.

Ward said the critical issue is to establish a Palestinian political culture that respects a single authority. He singled out Fatah, nominally the ruling party, which often acts as a renegade resistance.

“The most significant factor for improving the security situation rests in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority providing consistent and unified direction to the minister of the interior and to the security chiefs,” he said. “They must gain the support and commitment of the process by all, notably the Fatah leadership, ministers, security chiefs and heads of families in that environment.”

Israel also is likely to face pressures, if the questions from senators of both parties and the testimony of Welch and Ward were an indication.

Ward departed from a long-standing demand that the United States shared with Israel: that the Palestinians immediately fulfill commitments to disarm terrorist groups and arrest fugitives. Instead, he cautiously endorsed P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ policy of co-opting armed members of terrorist groups into the Palestinian armed forces.

An Israeli official said that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government also appreciated the temporary calm, but Israel still expects terrorists to be disarmed in the long run.

“Israel also supports calm but what is necessary is permanent, not temporary, calm, especially not calm being used by terror organizations to rearm for the next round,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ward also suggested that, with so little time before the disengagement begins Aug. 15, the United States has little patience for each side’s customary demand that the other move first.

“Both the Israelis and the Palestinians must take action to do what they say that they will do, irrespective of what the other side is doing or not doing,” he said.

Israel has hesitated to fulfill some recent agreements because of Abbas’ unwillingness to arrest fugitives and disarm terrorists. However, in recent days — and apparently under U.S. pressure — it has agreed to accelerate the handover of more West Bank cities to P.A. control.

Ward also expressed frustration with his efforts to get much-needed equipment past the Israelis and to the Palestinian police, including radios, protective clothing and vehicles.

Senators pressed Welch about the continued expansion of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“We have concern about settlement activity in general whenever it occurs, wherever it occurs because we believe it impacts the daily lives of people and could potentially prejudice arriving at negotiations on final status,” Welch said.

James Wolfensohn, charged by the “Quartet” — the group composed of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia that is guiding the peace process — with fund-raising for the post-withdrawal period, suggested that an international commitment of $3 billion a year was likely.

“We must be certain we get benefits to the Palestinians” in order to sustain the peace process, he said. “We must have physical evidence of benefits for these people.”

That could be accelerated if some $300 million in the pipeline for the Palestinians did not have a host of conditions attached to it, said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Slowing the assistance would make it difficult in future elections for Abbas to draw votes from well-funded extremists, said Biden, who praised President Bush for relaying $50 million directly to the Palestinian Authority, instead of through non-governmental organizations. Congressional appropriators who oppose direct aid to the Palestinian Authority because of its past corruption and support for terrorism recently directed Bush to operate through NGOs.

“I’m just a plain old politician,” Biden said, “but I tell you, if the water ain’t running, if you got to go to this guy who is an unofficial guy and he’s going to be the one to help you get your kid to school, and I’m the elected official and I got to go to an NGO down the road, then it doesn’t give me much leverage, doesn’t give me much authority, doesn’t give me much standing.”

Israel, too, must be generous, Wolfensohn said, especially in allowing the Palestinians to rebuild a port and airport in Gaza. Wolfensohn said Sharon was showing greater flexibility on the airport — which Israel is concerned could be used to launch airstrikes or smuggle in weapons — and had greenlighted planning for its re-building, if not a timetable.

Israel also is seeking assistance for its relocation of military bases from Gaza to Israel, and for post-withdrawal plans to develop the Negev and Galilee, where evacuated settlers are expected to settle. Reported aid figures range between $1 billion and $3 billion.

Einat Wilf, a senior advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, said it was premature to discuss amounts, but that U.S. and Israeli officials already are discussing the funding of infrastructure, industry development and “minority empowerment” in the Negev and Galilee regions.

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