Will More Money Help Palestinians?

Amid international skepticism and ongoing regional tensions, 87 countries and international organizations have pledged $7.4 billion in aid to help build a Palestinian state. Monday's Paris meeting of the donors comes on the heels of last month's Annapolis talks, a White House effort to revitalize Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before the Bush administration leaves office. The money, which is expected to pass through various channels, including international aid organizations and the Palestinian government—that is, the government of Mahmoud Abbas and not the now-defunct Hamas-led government in Gaza—was donated in response to this week's World Bank report, which noted that "even under the most optimistic scenarios significant aid will continue to be required" to ensure the economic stability of the West Bank and Gaza. Afif Safieh, a Palestinian diplomat who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization Mission in Washington, spoke to Vivian Salama about the likely impact of the aid package and the latest political developments in the Palestinian territories. Excerpts:

Vivian Salama: What is your reaction to the news of the aid package?
Afif Safieh: Since the international community did not show the political courage needed in Annapolis or in the pre-Annapolis period, which necessitated some confrontation with the Israeli territorial appetite, they are now showing financial generosity because of the absence of political audacity and political courage. They feel the collapse of the Palestinian society and the Palestinian economy will generate additional chaos to a region already plagued with it, so this is the result.

What is the alternative and/or the lacking initiative, in your opinion?
I would have preferred the political courage and the diplomatic courage which is needed to support the Palestinian state, but this would have meant a political confrontation with the Israeli political leadership. This is what countries in the international system want to avert. They compensate the lack of political courage with financial generosity. Now, the report made by the World Bank says that if the roadblocks and strangulation of [Palestinian] society and the economy of society continues, even with external financial help, our economy will continue to shrink and decline by 2 percent every year. We have the potential of going back to levels of growth which will be double digit if you give [us] the capability.

Do you see Israel as a partner?
The Israelis are until now reluctant to reduce the number of roadblocks, most of which have no security value except to plunge us into economic decline. Here I invite you to explore the expression that was originally coined by Sarah Roy, a Jewish-American writer, the daughter of survivors, a Harvard scholar, who invented the concept of de-development of Palestine—meaning that the deliberate Israeli policy [was] to plunge us into economic decline, and that's what's happening.

The Bush administration—namely [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice—has pledged its devotion to the creation of a Palestinian state before the end of its term. Are you optimistic, and is this new aid package what is needed to get this process off the ground?
I believe in the sincerity of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I find the statement made by Secretary Rice that the creation of a Palestinian state is an American national interest [is] an important political statement which reflects the reality of the analysis by a growing body. I believe Bush when he told President Mahmoud Abbas in New York in September [that Bush] is growing increasingly impatient by the absence of progress. Since we have been unreasonably reasonable, I don't think his impatience is addressed to my side of the argument. The question is will [Bush and Rice] vent their annoyance with the obstacle towards advance. Unfortunately so far there is no indication. Not only did the Israelis invest all their genius to lower expectations in the weeks that preceded Annapolis, but immediately after Annapolis they invested all their brilliance into torpedoing the modest results that emerged. Annapolis was supposed to retrigger a credible diplomatic avenue.

Does the aid package at least make you optimistic?
We are often asked, "Are you optimistic or pessimistic?" Even though I don't feel we Palestinians have the luxury of pessimism, even though I believe that it's only optimists who make history, I am often reminded that the definition of a pessimist is an informed optimist.

The World Bank has just released a detailed account on the dire economic conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. How would you describe the situation in [Hamas-controlled] Gaza?
A stain on the conscience of mankind. I read [the World Bank] report on Gaza: the inadmissible, the inconceivable is perpetrated on a daily basis. The Israelis withdrew out of Gaza yet besieged Gaza immediately, turning it into an open-air prison. They withdrew out of Gaza in order to improve their grip on the West Bank. [Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon never concealed that aim.

Some see this aid package as a victory for the Palestinian cause.
It shows the reservoir of goodwill and the diplomatic and universal unanimity the birth of a Palestinian state enjoys. Yet I am today more worried by the political impotence that we have witnessed throughout the decades. I believe peace is desirable, possible, doable yesterday already! As is frequently said, every possible scenario alternative and their opposite have been explored ad nauseam. I always tell Israelis that a territory that was occupied in six days can also be evacuated in six days, so that they can rest on the seventh and we can engage in the fascinating journey of economic development and reconstruction. It's the absence of the political will that is disturbing.

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