Israel Details Gaza Aid Request, Estimated at More Than $2 Billion

The Bush administration is considering the aftermath of Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip, weeks before soldiers remove the first settler. A team of top Israeli officials met this week with their American counterparts to present in detail, for the first time, how much Israel money wants from the United States for the withdrawal and for helping to resettle Gaza residents in the Negev desert and the Galilee region.

Monday’s meeting “was very useful in giving us a better understanding of what the Israeli plans are for the development of the Negev and Galilee, and we will be considering how the United States can best assist Israel with these efforts,” said a spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council, where Yossi Bachar, the director-general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, and Ilan Cohen, his counterpart at the Prime Minister’s Office, made their presentation.

No one would discuss numbers, but Israeli reports said the request was for $2.2 billion, in addition to the at least $2.5 billion Israel receives each year in U.S. aid.

The $2.2 billion would include the immediate cost of rebuilding military bases outside the Gaza Strip, an amount Israeli officials earlier had said would be around $600 million.

The rest would go to creating the right conditions for resettling up to 10,000 people in the Negev and Galilee.

The meeting struck a rare positive note just weeks before the withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 15. Settlers are ratcheting up their resistance to the evacuation, and Israeli officials are prepared for violence, including Palestinian terrorist attacks, such as the blast Tuesday in Netanya that killed three people and wounded at least two dozen.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, said the bombers were “idiots” and vowed to punish them.

A spate of terrorist attacks could turn Israeli public opinion against the withdrawal.

The United States condemned the attacks, but said it would stay the course.

“Our focus for right now is ensuring that the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank does move forward,” Tom Casey, the U.S. State Department spokesman said after Tuesday’s attack. “We do believe this creates a new and genuine opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward and to make progress on the ‘road map’ peace plan.”

Einat Wilf, a top adviser to Shimon Peres, the Israeli vice prime minister who is handling civilian aspects of the withdrawal, said Israel was seeking assistance in three broad areas: infrastructure to accommodate a population influx; investment seed money to create new industrial zones; and development funds designated for minorities in both regions — Bedouin in the Negev and Israeli Arabs in the north.

The Bush administration is adamant that it will not directly pay for settlers to relocate, since for decades America urged Israel against settling the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Framing the request in terms of development — especially targeting minorities — is likelier to win U.S. approval, said Wilf, who had a hand in drafting this week’s presentation.

“There’s a big emphasis on minority development, with a special emphasis on job creation for minority women,” she said. The Bush administration consistently emphasizes women’s rights in its Middle East initiatives.

Considering minorities was wise, sparing potential problems down the road, according to Larry Garber, the New Israel Fund’s executive director. Government appropriation of land in the Negev could impinge on some Bedouin claims in the region, said Garber, whose organization advocates for minorities in Israel.

“The process should be deliberative, not through fiat,” he said.

Wilf said that whatever Israel requests from the United States ultimately would be just a fraction of the total withdrawal cost.

An official at a pro-Israel lobby in Washington said the sides had yet to come to a final determination on money but predicted that whatever sum the Bush administration recommends will be approved easily by Congress.

Bush and Congress both understand that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needs a show of support for the risks he’s taking, said the official, who spoke anonymously because the request has yet to be finalized.

Meanwhile, competing surveys show vastly different levels of support for the withdrawal among Americans.

The Anti-Defamation League, which in the past has pushed the U.S. Jewish leadership to endorse the Gaza withdrawal plan, published a poll this week showing that 71 percent of Americans consider the withdrawal “a bold step for peace.”

The Zionist Organization of America, which leads opposition to the plan among American Jews, criticized the ADL, saying the question polled support for the idea that Israel is taking a “bold step,” but did not assess support for the actual pullout.

The ZOA published its own poll last week, which it said showed that 63 percent of Americans oppose the withdrawal.

The question in that poll was: “Do you think Israel should unilaterally give away a section of Gaza and a section of the Northern West Bank to the Palestinian Arabs, forcing 10,000 Israeli Jewish men, women and children to leave their homes, schools, farms and businesses, without an agreement of peace or without Israel getting anything else in return from the Palestinian Arabs?”

Critics say that such questions lead respondents to the ZOA’s desired answer.

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