News & Media Articles

The Donors Conference for Gaza Reconstruction: Why Invest Now?

03 March 2009 By New Israel Fund

With Secretary of State Clinton attending a donor conference in Egypt, many are asking why the United States should provide $300 million to reconstruct Gaza when there is a good chance that, as a result of continuing violence, whatever is built will again be destroyed.   When I served as director of the US assistance program in the West Bank and Gaza, I asked myself this question repeatedly, particularly during the last three-and-a-half years of my tenure, as the intifada raged and we sought to maintain our activities on the ground. 

The cynic answers that this is the price the United States, and others in the donor community, pay to maintain a relative calm.  From the cynics’ perspective, the very generous levels of assistance serve to prevent an even more serious outbreak of violence.  A reduction or cut-off of assistance would translate directly into an even worse humanitarian situation, with even larger numbers joining more militant groups.   So, for many US policymakers $300 million or the several billion that have been provided since the 1993 Oslo Accords represent a small price to pay to avoid a larger conflagration.

My own experiences suggest that, despite the frustration of seeing so many investments going to waste, we must emphasize not only the alleviation of immediate misery, but the formation of the fundamental frameworks, institutions and values that are essential for ensuring a better future for Palestinians.  Consequently, even in the darkest days of the intifada, we sought to support projects directed at sustaining Palestinian governing and civil society institutions that were working.  And even today in Hamas-controlled Gaza, there are courageous individuals and independent organizations that are promoting a message of hope for a despairing population; they seek to ensure that a better day emerges for all people in the region and they deserve our support.  Yet, these longer-term development objectives will fail to sustain themselves in a Palestinian setting unless they are coupled with progress on the larger issues. 

I write these words having just completed (NIF International Council Chair) Martin Indyk’s excellent recounting of peace-making efforts during President Clinton’s eight years in office, Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. As Martin’s describes, no one was more committed to using his presidency to achieving peace in the Middle East than Bill Clinton.  And, Martin credibly analyzes why, despite this incredible investment of presidential time, the effort ultimately failed on both the Syrian and Palestinian fronts.  

Yet, in reading Martin’s book, as well as the books of his two fellow peace processors, Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller, I could not help but note their virtual ignoring the US government’s efforts to use our assistance programs to support our diplomatic efforts.  The investment in the Palestinian Territories during the Clinton years, both in the aggregate and on a per capita basis, was quite extraordinary. 

Given her background, Secretary Clinton, more so than most diplomats and policymakers, appears to understand that foreign assistance is more than a mere instrumentality that can be called upon to calm a tense situation or to compensate a party for concessions on sensitive issues.  Rather, US government assistance, coordinated with the contributions of others, is integral, if utilized strategically and implemented wisely, to ensuring the success of a peacemaking process.  

In this context, Secretary Clinton’s speech at the donor conference on Monday struck precisely the right tone.  She stated: 

In pledging these funds, we are pursuing both a short- and long-term approach. It is not enough just to respond to the immediate needs of the Palestinian people. Our response to today’s crisis in Gaza cannot be separated from our broader efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace. Only by acting now can we turn this crisis into an opportunity that moves us closer to our shared goals.

The question remains whether, given political realities in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, a comprehensive peace is possible.  On the Palestinian side, some form of reconciliation between the leading actors, including Hamas, seems essential; the question is whether the United States will accept an arrangement, mediated by the Egyptians and agreed upon by the Palestinians, that integrates Hamas into existing Palestinian institutional structures.    And in Israel, the United States will have to continue emphasizing our profound commitment to the rapid emergence of a viable Palestinian state, regardless of the seeming reluctance of Prime Minister-designate to commit himself to this outcome. 

I am not one who believes that the demise of the two-state solution is imminent.  Nonetheless, for those who care about the future of Israeli democracy, a lack of progress in this direction should be a source of serious concern.  Rather than allowing the radical anti-democrats to dictate the terms of the debate, NIF insists that a vision for an Israel that acts consistent with the values of its founders must remain at the center of the discussion.