Post-gaza Aid Not on Agenda, but Annual Aid to Israel Weathers Storm

Annual U.S. aid to Israel appears unlikely to fall despite the costs associated with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but an extra aid package to smooth Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal is off the table for now. Officials have said Israel pulled its additional request for as much as $2.2 billion in post-Gaza aid because it would seem inappropriate while the United States incurred huge expenses — as much as $200 billion — in the wake of the two major storms.

“With one disaster after another, the momentum we had before the disengagement has been lost,” Yossi Bachar, director general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, said Sunday in Washington, where he was attending International Monetary Fund meetings.

But the request for extra post-Gaza assistance may come up again as soon as six months from now, a senior Israeli government source told JTA.

Israel wants $600 million to relocate military bases removed from the Gaza Strip and up to $1.6 billion to help absorb 9,000 settlers evacuated from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank.

The money would not directly assist the settlers, but would fund infrastructure development and new industrial zones in the regions likeliest to absorb them, the Negev Desert in the south and the Galilee in the north. In an April meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush said he would consider any request Israel made.

Instead of pressing the case, however, Bachar said Israel was leaving it alone for now. A decision to raise it again would have to come at the political level.

An Israeli official with connections at the highest echelons of Israeli politics said a decision could come as soon as six months from now. In the meantime, Israel is going ahead with the proposed projects, the official said.

Sharon faced down an internal Likud Party challenge from withdrawal opponents this week, but could face another one in April, when the Likud holds its leadership primary. He faces national elections by the end of 2006.

Being able to show that the post-withdrawal process is going smoothly would be a boon to him.

Officials in Israel and the United States say Israel faces no serious threat to the more than $2.5 billion it routinely receives each year in military and economic assistance.

Similarly, the $250 million still in the pipeline for the Palestinians remains untouched. The United States transferred the first $50 million of $300 million it has pledged to the Palestinians in late August, to facilitate self-rule in Gaza.

Congressional Republicans are considering “offsets” to help pay for Katrina — that is, reductions in sums already appropriated. In one proposal for offsets, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) targets a number of foreign-aid projects, but leaves Israel and the Palestinians off his target list.

Pence, who heads the Republican Study Committee, an 86-member group of conservative Republicans, is known as a close friend of Israel in the U.S. House of Representatives, so it’s no surprise that aid to Israel doesn’t make his list.

Pence targets Egypt for an aid reduction because of its slowness in introducing democratic reform, and proposes freezing funding for Africa, AIDS relief and the Peace Corps, low-priority issues for Republicans.

More surprising is Pence’s omission of assistance to the Palestinians, which has come under close congressional review because of concerns that money earmarked for the Palestinians has been squandered in the past by a corrupt regime closely associated with terrorists.

The Bush administration has argued that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is committed to reform and deserves greater consideration than his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat. It’s a message that has resonated in Congress, especially ahead of legislative elections that could exponentially increase the political power of Hamas.

Aid to the Palestinians is considered too important to cut, a source close to a leading congressional appropriator said.

That doesn’t mean Palestinians should expect less scrutiny, however: Members of Congress had tough questions last week for the Bush administration’s two top envoys to the Middle East at a House International Relations Committee hearing.

David Welch of the State Department and Gen. William Weld, the security envoy, acknowledged problems in the Palestinian Authority.

“Although President Mahmoud Abbas has taken some steps to assert control, overall Palestinian Authority performance to date has been far from satisfactory,” Welch said. “The P.A. must move quickly to establish order and to take steps to dismantle the infrastructure of terror.”

The Palestinian Authority was unable to control the border with Egypt in the days after Israel withdrew, raising the specter of increased arms smuggling to terrorists. The border has quieted in recent days, but Hamas and other terrorist groups have begun launching rocket attacks on Israel, drawing a harsh Israeli response.

Congress has the power to slow the arrival of more funds by exercising its right to scrutiny, and members said they would closely watch the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal.

“In the midst of this chaos, the spotlight has now clearly shifted to the Palestinian Authority, which must now show that it can effectively and successfully govern Gaza,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the Middle East subcommittee.

Palestinians say they need money fast to assert control. Diana Buttu, an adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinian Authority is concerned that the international community has yet to provide some $3 billion it pledged ahead of Israel’s pullout. Much of that money is to go to construction projects that would create jobs.

“The international community has not followed through with its promises,” she said Tuesday in a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum. “That will be something that Hamas pick up and run with.”

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