WASHINGTON, Aug 18 (Reuters) - As Israeli soldiers struggle to force settlers
from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, U.S. officials are quietly looking at
a $2.2 billion aid request from Israel to develop the country's
Galilee and Negev regions.
An Israeli delegation met with U.S. officials last month in Washington to present
their plan and the State Department said U.S. assessment teams were in the region
this week to look at the viability of funding these projects.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Israel's ambassador in Washington,
Daniel Ayalon, said he hoped the United States, as Israel's closest ally, would
be generous in helping to transform the underdeveloped, outlying Galilee and
"This would be a strong political message from the United States ... for
what we are doing. Israel is a cornerstone for stability in the Middle East,"
The money would be used to boost infrastructure and provide jobs, housing and
water. Ayalon said there was great potential for minerals in Negev as well as
tourism and hi-tech industries.
Visibly upset by television pictures showing Israeli soldiers dragging out
protesters from a synagogue in Gaza, Ayalon said it was emotionally very difficult
to see young children and families being removed.
"We empathize with them and feel their pain. What we should say to them
is thank you for their sacrifice. It's a pain for the country and an individual
pain for those people who live there," said Ayalon.
He hoped the United States could help create a community in Negev and Galilee
that could absorb millions of people.
Ayalon declined to provide specific figures on how much U.S. aid Israel
was looking for, but a State Department official confirmed the Israelis had
put in a request for $2.2 billion in new aid.
The ambassador said the total cost of developing these areas would amount to
dozens of billions of dollars with an initial investment of about $6 billion
or $7 billion.
"We are asking the United States for a fraction of this," he said.
AID FOR PALESTINIANS
For the 2006 budget, the White House has requested $240 million for Israel
from the State Department's Economic Support Fund and $2.3 billion in foreign
military financing. In 2005, Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. aid, got
nearly $2.6 billion, most of it military.
Any new aid requests to cover Negev or Galilee would likely emerge in a supplemental
budget request from the White House next year, said U.S. officials, who asked
not to be named because it was a sensitive issue.
"There is no specific course of action yet but discussions are continuing
as to how we can move ahead on aid packages," said State Department spokesman
Sullivan said the United States was looking at ways to support both the Israeli
and Palestinian economies and it would become clearer what was needed when disengagement
"It will switch into high gear after disengagement," he said.
The Palestinians were promised $3 billion from the Group of Eight industrialized
nations last month and the Bush administration also is looking into what it
can do to help improve the lives of Palestinians.
Over the past year, the Palestinians have been given more than $150 million
in U.S. aid, including $50 million in direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development advertised contracts
to improve roads in Gaza as well as a feasibility study with the World Bank
on a secure transport system linking Gaza and the West Bank.