Resettlement aid

August 29, 2005

THE BILLIONS in U.S. aid bestowed on Israel in the past decade have carried a caveat - none of the money could be used in the Palestinian territories captured by Israel during the 1967 war. That legal impediment should hold in any request for additional U.S. aid to help offset Israel's cost of evacuating 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in a remote corner of the West Bank. The estimated $2 billion cost of removing settlers and demolishing their homes has been borne by the Israeli government. Israel spent mightily to build the settlements, establish their way of life and secure them, and the government should be solely responsible financially for undoing them.

But the Bush administration could help extend the benefits of Israel's historic withdrawal after the last settlement stone has been trucked away. America already handsomely compensates its chief Mideast ally - Israel receives $2.3 billion a year, qualifying it as the biggest recipient of U.S. aid annually. Israel would like additional help - reportedly another $2 billion - to develop scarcely populated areas near the Sea of Galilee in the north and the southern Negev desert. The latter constitutes 60 percent of Israel's land mass but only 9 percent of its population. More than a year ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush discussed the Gaza withdrawal, the president supported the proposal and gave a nod to the Negev-Galilee development.

Mr. Bush should follow through - helping develop those areas in Israel could serve the administration's greater goal of stopping settlement expansion. Many secular Israelis who have no ideological ties to the territories chose to live there because they offered affordable housing.

But before any more aid is given to Israel, the administration should release an aid package promised to the Palestinian Authority. PA President Mahmoud Abbas received $50 million of it this week, but another $100 million is on hold. The money is needed to improve impoverished conditions in Gaza and reinforce the benefits of the Israeli pullout.

With the Gaza withdrawal finished, the West Bank settlements stand at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their fate must be decided in a negotiated peace settlement. But until then, Israel should resist fortifying those communities with more settlers. Affordable homes built with U.S. assistance in the Negev and the Galilee could prove a powerful incentive.

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