USAID just doesn’t know what to do with its money?
It could partly build a new school (it could build maybe one-fourth of a new school) with what it has agreed to spend in giving the Israeli team of the “Geneva Initiative” — not a deprived or unconnected group of people — to film certain leading Palestinian Authority personages telling an Israeli audience that they are “partners” to make peace.
One of the first of these USAID spots finished and released features Saeb Erekat, who says to the camera: “Shalom to you in Israel … I know that we have disappointed you … I am your partner. Are you mine?” This can be viewed on the site of the Geneva Initiative’s Israeli team here.
The promo spots are being released just days before the hoped-for relaunch of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which were broken off in late December 2008, as the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Now, USAID does not have any programs in Israel (which is a developed country) — though (for security reasons) its growing West Bank-and-Gaza program is located in an oceanfront highrise office Tel Aviv (and its officials can only travel to the West Bank with a vastly-expensive and armor-plated American escort).
Nonetheless, it is the Israeli team of the Geneva Initiative — headquartered in another high-rise office in Tel Aviv where former Prime Ministers have maintained offices — which asked for, and got, funding to produce this media campaign ahead of this week’s Washington meetings.
The justification for it is unclear.
USAID’s website states that “The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funds programs that help people living in the West Bank and Gaza lead healthier and more productive lives. Since 1994, Palestinians have received more than $2.9 billion in U.S. economic assistance via USAID projects – more than from any other donor country” — this is posted here.
Of course, people living in the West Bank and Gaza could reasonably be expected to lead “healthier and more productive lives” if the Israeli direct and indirect military occupation is ended — and through negotiations, as the principals all now say they prefer.
But, this media campaign leaves a lot of questions open, including these, which I addressed earlier today to USAID:
“Could you please help me understand how it is, and why, USAID funded the Geneva Initiative (Israeli team’s) request to make promo spots intended to air on Israeli television in which some prominent PA figures appear?
“Was it a difficult decision for this arm of the U.S. government to back the Geneva Initiative (about which, if I am not mistaken, the U.S. government previously felt somewhat more neutral)?
“Can I also ask what was the amount of the USAID backing for this request? (YNet apparently reported in Hebrew that it was $250,000, but in English YNet referred to “millions of shekels”)…
“Has the Palestinian Peace Coalition (the Geneva Initiative’s Palestinian team) made a similar or parallel request, and if so is USAID planning to fund it, too?
And, I also asked: “In addition, can I ask what is the amount allocated for USAID’s current billboard campaign in Ramallah, praising USAID projects?”
I am waiting for a response…
Meanwhile, some background: the Geneva Initiative was announced as an effort by “civil society” in October 2003, and signed — in Geneva — in a ceremony in December 2003, for which the Swiss government flew in a planeload each of Israeli and Palestinian supporters just for the event, then flew them all back to the region. The document was discussed, or negotiated, primarily between Israeli politician Yossi Beilin (drafted on his behalf primarily by Daniel Levy, now writing and think-taking in Washington) and Palestinian politico Yasser Abed Rabbo (with considerable drafting done by a then-aide to Abu Mazen, Ghaith al-Omary, who is now also in Washington with the American Task Force on Palestine). The main innovation of the Geneva Initiative was to stipulate that any exchange of territory in the context of a final deal should be done on a 1:1 basis. The Geneva Initiative was denounced by many Palestinians for being so understanding of Israeli refusal to imagine the return of any but a handful at most of the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants scattered in neighboring Arab states and around the world. One of the main questions at the time was whether Yasser Arafat approved or not. Though it was unstated, Arafat’s tacit backing was evident. The discrete talks that produced the Geneva Intiative were hosted by a sympathetic professor at the University of Geneva, and funded by his wealthy Swiss banker father. The Swiss Foreign Ministry found the initiative appealing and offered diplomatic, financial, and logistic backing — and then were shocked by the sharply negative reaction of the Israeli government, whose main objection seemed to have been that it was not officially informed of the initiative in advance.