WASHINGTON -- A month after the Wye Plantation summit put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, representatives from 42 nations pledged yesterday to bolster it with more than $3 billion in promised aid over the next five years -- much of it from U.S. taxpayers.
Announcing the biggest single contribution, President Clinton proposed to give $400 million to the Palestinian Authority, bringing the administration's planned five-year spending on the West Bank and Gaza Strip to $900 million.
Clinton's pledge marks the latest step in a trend of sharp increases in U.S. aid after major milestones in the peace process. It comes, however, amid controversy in Washington and abroad over how aid to the Palestinians and the Israelis is being spent and means that money for other needy regions could be put at risk.
Israel, which already gets about $3 billion a year from the United States, is expected to seek a one-time package worth $1.2 billion to help pay for its withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank as called for under the Wye Memorandum.
In the agreement, reached in October on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Israel agreed to the pullback in exchange for stepped up Palestinian measures against terrorism. The deal rescued the Middle East peace process from near collapse after 19 months of little negotiation and rising frustration throughout the region.
The donors' conference, held at the State Department, was a replay of another held in October 1993, after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed accords in Oslo, Norway, intended to replace decades of bitter antagonism with cooperation.
In addition to the U.S. pledge, the conference raised $480 million from the European Union, $200 million from Japan and "several hundred million" from Arab countries, an American official said.
The total from Europe was not disclosed, but Austrian Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel predicted that it would equal the $1.7 billion spent by Europeans over the past five years.
Opening the conference, Clinton expressed the frustration felt by many donors and relief agency officials in trying to bring economic benefits to the Palestinians.
"There has been too little tangible improvement in the life of the Palestinian people," he said. "We must convince those who have invested so much in this process that it was a sound investment."
Over the past few years, U.S. aid to the Palestinians has averaged $70 million annually.
Although the Palestinian infrastructure has improved, many Palestinians remain impoverished. And economic development has stalled, in part because of repeated Israeli border closures, a frequent practice after terrorist acts against Jews.
Palestinians got the equivalent of $204 per person last year, while aid to India and the rest of South Asia amounted to $4 per person. For Israel, the figure was about $600 a person.
During yesterday's closed conference, sources said, a number of officials demanded greater "transparency," a diplomatic way of telling Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to clamp down on corruption.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright stressed, as did others, that much of the aid is being directed to specific projects rather than been sent to the Palestinian Authority to spend as it wishes.
Arafat, at a news conference, pledged to abide by the conditions placed on the aid. But the emphasis on projects undercut a central Arafat aim: to increase the authority's power and persuade the world to accept the idea of a Palestinian state.
Arafat told the donors the aid enabled his people to "develop our economy and realize our independence."
Raising the hackles of Israelis, Arafat has used his visit to the United States to reiterate his plan to declare an independent Palestinian state next May, when the five-year process set forth under the Oslo pact expires if there is no final accord.
Arafat said "Holy Jerusalem," which Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital, is the No. 1 issue in pending "final status" negotiations.
The new aid pledges yesterday came against the backdrop of a mixed record on the $2.5 billion spent to assist the Palestinians since the first international donors conference six years ago.
In addition to reports of corruption that have made donors hesitant, Palestinian development has been stymied by divergent goals among donors, with Americans seeking to foster cooperation between Israelis and Arabs, and Europeans seeking to help Palestinians develop their own state.
Aid agencies have tended to stress solutions in vogue in the development community rather than Israeli-Arab cooperation, said Patrick Clawson of the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
"If the flavor of the year is micro enterprises or women in development, that's what we see" in Palestinian aid programs, Clawson said.
Israel's aid request is expected to win support in Congress, where it has strong support. But some members will likely voice concern that aid might be used to strengthen Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Since the Wye agreement, Israel has stepped up road-building to provide safe access for Jewish settlements.
Although Israel previously had accepted a gradual decrease in economic aid, the cuts so far have been a modest $60 million out of an annual $3 billion annual package. Counting aid to Egypt, the United States spends more than $5 billion a year to advance Arab-Israeli peace.
An aide to Rep. Sonny Callahan, the Alabama Republican who chairs the foreign aid appropriations panel, indicated that the Clinton aid requests would be viewed with skepticism because the administration has not shown where cuts could be made elsewhere to make way for the increases.
"At this time of year, when the holidays approach, a lot of people have wish lists," Jo Bonner said.
Pub Date: 12/01/98