WASHINGTON (Aug. 2)
Despite intense U.S. involvement in negotiations leading up to Israel’s departure from the Gaza Strip, the hard work will begin only after Israel leaves. In order to achieve a badly needed success in the region, the Bush administration will have to bridge competing Israeli and Palestinian interests.
Already, senior U.S. officials have begun to make clear the expectations — on issues of weapons, fighting terrorism, open borders and aid.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region twice in the last two months. On her most recent visit — acting on advice from Gen. William Ward, the top U.S. security adviser for the withdrawal — she sternly advised Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that the Palestinians need more guns if they are to confront terrorist groups after the withdrawal.
Mofaz accelerated the delivery of nonlethal equipment this week — jeeps and walkie-talkies — but is balking at delivering guns to a force Israel still sees as potentially aligned with terrorists.
Sharon’s top adviser, Dov Weisglass, was in Washington this week trying to persuade the American government that arming the Palestinians now is counterproductive.
“This is lethal stuff,” an Israeli official said. “The Palestinians are not dealing with the terrorist infrastructure.”
Rice is also making it clear that once the Palestinian Authority has the guns, it must confront the terrorists in its midst.
“We’re working with the Palestinian Authority and with their security forces to make sure that they have the tools that they need and that they are organized properly to be able to carry out their mission — to be able to provide security to the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Rice’s spokesman, Tom Casey, said Monday.
Rice also wants Gaza to have access to the outside world. An open Palestinian economy would help prop up P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, favored by the Bush administration as a relative moderate, ahead of Palestinian legislative elections slated to take place before the end of the year.
“When the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, it cannot be a sealed or isolated area, with the Palestinian people closed in after that withdrawal,” Rice said last month during her Israel visit, standing alongside Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister.
The Palestinians applaud this perspective. Diane Buttu, a top aide to Abbas, said of the Bush administration, “There has been a change. They understand the need for open borders, for the freedom for the economy to develop and grow.”
Sharon has said he is willing to let the Palestinians rebuild their seaport and discuss a timetable for rebuilding their airport. Israel is also accelerating the building of high-tech transit stations on the border with Gaza and on the West Bank, to expedite the passage of Palestinians and speed the export of produce, a key aspect of the Palestinian economy.
On the issue of aid, Bush has authorized $50 million in direct U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority, using a national security waiver to bypass congressional directives not to directly fund the P.A. Bush has also persuaded Western allies to pledge $3 billion in assistance.
Israel supports efforts to aid the Palestinians.
And for the Palestinians, “it is vitally important” that the aid go through the Palestinian government, Buttu said.
“Hamas is saying Israelis are evacuating because of its resistance, and if at the end of the day, once evacuation takes place, Hamas is rebuilding, it will be a disaster for everybody,” she said.
The United States will also have to decide what aid to grant Israel.
Partnered with his longtime rival, Shimon Peres — the Labor Party leader and vice prime minister who is coordinating the civil and economic aspects of the withdrawal — Sharon wants the U.S. government to help fund the development of the Negev and Galilee, where the bulk of the roughly 9,000 Gaza evacuees are likely to be resettled.
Peres’ representatives have reportedly asked the Americans for $2.2 billion for withdrawal-related expenses, in addition to the $2.5 billion Israel already receives annually.
Peres’ office has said that $600 million has been requested for transferring military bases from Gaza but would not confirm a total amount requested.
The U.S. administration has said it is interested in helping Israel with the costs of withdrawal but has not indicated whether all or a portion of that aid would be forthcoming.
For Peres, U.S. assistance is crucial. “The Israeli people will see it’s not about uprooting settlers, but about building,” his office said in a statement to JTA. “We’re building Israel’s future.”
For its part, the U.S. Congress appears to be moving closer to the administration on aid to the Palestinians.
Throughout the Clinton administration and this one, Congress has traditionally been more skeptical than the presidents about the Palestinians’ willingness to confront terrorism and shuck off corruption. It has imposed oversight restrictions on aid to the Palestinians that do not apply to other foreign assistance.
Yet in recent months, Congress has shown some willingness to roll back some of those restrictions. The most recent of dozens of bills and amendments that would keep the P.A. from getting direct U.S. aid succeeded — but with an unprecedented 100 members of Congress voting against it.
Among those opposing the measure proposed last week by U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkeley (D-Nev.) were eight Jewish members, including U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the most powerful Democrat on the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee.
“I fought for many years against direct transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority, and it still makes me extremely uncomfortable — and I think for good reason — based on facts,” she said at a hearing on the withdrawal.
“I’ve not stood in the way, however, of the three most recent direct transfers of funding,” she said, adding that she wanted to see whether Abbas “is committed to achieving a better future for the Palestinian people or whether he is interested more in haranguing Israel for defending its people.”
To better assess Abbas’ intentions, both parties are sending delegations to the region during this month’s congressional break. Party leaders say they want to determine whether to lift restrictions on the remaining $250 million in aid designated for the Palestinians, which is not allowed to go directly to the P.A.
“We’ll be looking at what the U.S. role is in facilitating rehabilitation and reconstruction, the economic picture for the Palestinian people,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House of Representatives Democratic whip, told JTA.
The Democrats will also tour the Negev and Galilee to assess Israeli development needs there, said Hoyer, who will be making his eighth trip to Israel. He said the issue transcended partisanship.
“Every Democrat and Republican is committed to a secure Israel and a Palestinian community that has a sense of future,” he said.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Hoyer’s Republican counterpart who is also leading a tour of Israel, is more skeptical about the P.A. deserving direct aid.
“We had bad experiences over the years of money going to the P.A. and winding up somewhere other than the cause of peace,” he told JTA. “I hope we’re reaching a time when we can have a level of confidence in the government that allows more trust. It’s going to take a lot of monitoring.”