WASHINGTON — As President Bush plans to ask Congress for additional aid for the Palestinian Authority, Israel is preparing the ground for its own supplemental request to help underwrite its planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
Israel will ask for funds to establish a series of new crossing points along its border with Palestinian areas, and to cover the cost of redeploying troops from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Israel also will ask for financial assistance to develop the Negev and the Galilee — where Jewish settlers from Gaza and Northern West Bank would be encouraged to resettle, Israeli and American sources confirmed. Later, Israel also might ask for aid to help build railroad infrastructure that would pass through Israeli territory, to help the Palestinians import and export via Israeli seaports, sources said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to receive requests for assistance when she visits Jerusalem next week. Preliminary discussions of these issues took place earlier this week, when Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s top political adviser, Dov Weissglass, met with Rice in Washington. The newly sworn-in top diplomat, on her first trip overseas as secretary of state, is also expected to promise the P.A. some $200 million in additional direct aid, Bush administration officials said.
The president indicated last week that he intends to ask Congress for that money when he files his request for a supplemental budget to fund American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several members of Congress on both sides of the aisle told the Forward that although many lawmakers oppose an increase in aid to the P.A., the funds are certain to be approved. “Bills that fund the troops in the field generally pass,” said Rep. Anthony Wiener, a New York Democrat, who vehemently opposed direct aid to the P.A.
The government of Israel has not yet filed an official request for additional American aid, but Israeli officials this week said that they would do so soon. Israel’s deputy chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, told a Knesset committee this week that the Gaza redeployment cost for the military would be about $430 million, mainly connected to the repositioning of troops and facilities that are removed from Gaza.
At the moment, Israel is seeking about $180 million from America to help fund what Israeli officials are describing as a “revolutionary” transformation of the crossing points that connect Israel to the West Bank and Gaza. The overall projected cost of the venture is $430 million, of which the Israeli government will budget $250 million, as Israel’s ambassador to Washington Daniel Ayalon told the Israeli business daily Globes last week.
Israel is planning to build a network of high-tech terminals to facilitate safe and speedy passage of both people and goods between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The terminals, Israeli officials said, would be staffed by civilians in order to prevent friction between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. They will be equipped with cutting-edge security devices that would ensure minimal intrusion while searching people and goods, yet they would provide maximum security, Israeli diplomats said.
An official Israeli delegation, headed by former brigadier general Baruch Spiegel, briefed American officials this week on the planned crossing points. Spiegel, who coordinates Israel’s efforts to minimize friction with the Palestinian population along the security fence and at roadblocks, also briefed officials with American Jewish groups and senior World Bank officials. The World Bank “has indicated that it is willing to play a role, whether financially or in technical assistance,” in upgrading the border crossings, said Christian Poortman, World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa. The crossings, he said, should fit into a policy that will allow them to function as a tool to encourage Palestinian economic recovery.
Poortman, chief author of a recent World Bank report on the requirements for Palestinian economic recovery, said in an interview with the Forward that reciprocal measures taken by Israel and the P.A. in the past month have been “remarkable.” Particularly, he noted, Israelis and Palestinians are now engaged in direct talks with the intention of accommodating each others’ needs. For example, Poortman said, Israelis and Palestinians have jointly identified several potential points for future border-crossing terminals.
Despite the encouraging first steps, Poortman said, Israel needs to do more to lift roadblocks on West Bank roads and to find a way to allow the movement of people and goods between the West Bank and Gaza. On this count, Poortman, as well as American officials, said they are encouraged by Israeli plans to transfer large parts of the West Bank to Palestinian security forces.
American officials said recently that they are also intrigued by an Israeli idea to connect the West Bank to Gaza through a railway. The proposed railway would also grant Palestinians access to the Ashdod seaport, south of Tel Aviv.
This week underscored the close relationship between security cooperation and prospects for economic recovery. As Israel’s minister of defense, Shaul Mofaz, met with top Palestinian security officials this week to coordinate security arrangements, top Israeli and Palestinian officials met at the annual international economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the economic fruit they hope to reap from the drop in violence for which both sides are wishing. Israel’s vice premier, Shimon Peres, discussed improvements in border crossings with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, and urged European governments to invest in the Palestinian territories. Talks in Davos also were held between Israel’s Industry and Trade minister, Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian Economy Minister Maher al-Masri, and between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Palestinian counterpart, Nabil Sha’th.