Israel seeks U.S. Funding for Pullout
By David R. Sands
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
A top-level Israeli delegation yesterday met with U.S. officials, seeking $2.2 billion to help finance Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Administration and congressional officials took a wait-and-see approach to the request, saying they needed to study details of the huge aid request. The Bush administration has strongly backed Mr. Sharon's withdrawal program, but it faces sharp opposition from Jewish settler groups in Israel.
After a White House meeting yesterday evening, a National Security Council spokesman told reporters U.S. officials still must evaluate the preliminary request.
"A number of programs and needs were described and we will be working with the government of Israel to understand the proposal and see how we can assist in making the plans a reality," the spokesman said.
The fiscal 2006 foreign aid bill now working its way through Congress contains about $3 billion in military and economic assistance for Israel, traditionally the largest single recipient of American foreign aid.
The new $2.2 billion request, one of the largest of its kind for Israel, would almost certainly be put into a supplemental spending bill after the normal appropriations bills are passed.
"We'll certainly be interested in whatever comes down to us from the administration," a spokesman for the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee said yesterday.
Israeli officials confirmed the outlines of the aid request to Haaretz newspaper and to the Agence France-Presse news service. It would be the largest single aid request from Israel since 1992, when the United States provided some $3 billion to compensate Israel for damage caused by Saddam Hussein's missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
A delegation that includes Sharon aide Ilan Cohen is in Washington this week, arriving last week to outline the proposal. Israeli officials defended the size of the request by noting the "unprecedented scale" of the pullout proposal.
Under Mr. Sharon's plan, Israel next month will begin a unilateral withdrawal from 21 settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank region, relocating about 9,000 residents from the occupied lands to underdeveloped areas of Israel proper.
While Israel would bear the direct cost of relocating the settlers, the U.S. funds would be used to help cover the costs of relocating military bases in Gaza and for infrastructure needs in the relatively underdeveloped Galilee and Negev regions of Israel.
"We have to engage to rebuild a country and that is the development of the Negev and of the Galilee," Vice Premier Shimon Peres told the Reuters news agency yesterday.
Israeli officials said the proposed $2.2 billion package included loans, grants and financing guarantees.
U.S. officials are hoping Mr. Sharon's pullout will provide fresh impetus to the stalled "road map" peace plan with the Palestinians for an overall settlement in the region. The European Union, Russia and the United Nations also are supporting the road map.
Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a Washington-based group that supports the withdrawal, said past U.S. statements in support of Mr. Sharon's disengagement plan made it likely there will be substantial U.S. support for the aid request.
"The administration has already said in principle it will help with Israel's military costs from the plan," Mr. Roth said. "And these are very legitimate expenses directly associated with that plan."
Mr. Sharon calls his plan a "disengagement" designed to end the latest cycle of violence with Palestinians that began in 2000.
The Group of Eight industrial powers, meeting in Scotland last week, backed a global fund of $3 billion annually for the next three years to help Palestinians develop the Gaza region after the Israeli withdrawal.
But Palestinian officials fear the Gaza pullout is part of a plan by Mr. Sharon to cement Israel's hold of disputed areas in the West Bank, where the vast bulk of Israel's 240,000 settlers live.
Mr. Sharon's Cabinet today is to consider a defense ministry proposal to retain a number of military outposts in the West Bank, saying a withdrawal would leave Israeli cities vulnerable to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.