Monday, October 10, 2005


New York Post

WHEN President Bush meets in Washington with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Oct. 20, the No. 2 item on the agenda is reviving the Palestinian economy. Look for Abbas to encourage the United States to help his people by offering them millions in U.S. greenbacks.

Bush should first consider the saga of the greenhouses.

It has long been argued that the best way to encourage an end to violence and terrorism against Israel is for the Palestinian people to take control of their own destiny and build a state. And what they need more than anything else to do that are the funds to invest in their future.

That's surely what got James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, thinking.

The "quartet" powers (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) had tapped him to monitor the Israeli pullout from Gaza. He got personally involved in trying to jumpstart the Gaza's new economy — to the tune of half a million dollars of his own, and millions more from friends.

Jewish settlers had built and operated some 4,000 greenhouses. It was a serious moneymaking enterprise, with nearly $100 million a year in revenue from tomatoes, flowers and fruit sold in Israel and exported abroad.

Wolfensohn wanted the Palestinians to use the greenhouses to kick-start Gaza's new economy. But the Palestinian Authority refused to buy the greenhouses from the settlers, or to let the Israeli or U.S. governments pay.

Perhaps he should have taken the PA's refusals as a hint. Instead, Wolfensohn took it upon himself to "help" by buying the greenhouses for the PA with private funds.

He convinced Daily News owner and prominent Israel supporter Mort Zuckerman to join the effort. "He threw in about half a million of his own and raised the rest," Wolfensohn told the Jerusalem Report.

The total was $14 million, enough to buy 3,000 of the greenhouses. Some of it came from the likes of Chicago billionaire Lester Crown and Leonard Stern, the chairman of the Hartz Mountain real-estate empire, as well as the Aspen Institute, whose chairman is Walter Isaacson.

Zuckerman told The New York Times that buying the greenhouses was a constructive idea.

"Despite my skepticism," he said, "I thought . . . 'This is perhaps the only illustration or symbol of what could be the benefits of a co-operational, rather than a confrontational attitude.'"
Oops. When the last Israeli troops left the area Sept. 12, Palestinians began looting and destroying anything they could get their hands on, including the greenhouses.

The PA security services stood aside impotently, not lifting a finger to stop the destruction and theft of irrigation hoses, water pumps and plastic sheeting. Some even joined in.

In a phone interview, Zuckerman was clearly disappointed.

"It just goes to show how [the Palestinians] have a lawless society. The property was offered to them at no cost and would have provided them with jobs, but they just couldn't take advantage of it."
The Palestinians report that 800 of the greenhouses are unusable because of the pillaging. Repairing the damage would cost hundreds of thousands.

And so another project to help the Palestinians build their state has been horribly delayed or may never happen at all.

It's an old story. Since even before the 1993 Oslo peace accords, idealistic donors have given the Palestinians what they thought they wanted, and the Palestinians have either been unable or unwilling to take advantage and build on what they're given.

By some estimates, Yasser Arafat and his henchmen stole half of the $7 billion in foreign aid sent to the Palestinian Authority between 1994 and 2000. And, like the greenhouses, dozens of charitable projects have been destroyed by the very people they were designed to help.

Stanley A. Urman, former director of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, insists that donors and aid groups learned from all that. In the Middle East, he explains, saving face, honor and winning are just too important to be ignored. That's why, he argues, a project like the greenhouses should have succeeded: It's a win-win situation for both sides.

"The settlers got fair value for their assets and the Palestinians get the economic benefit. Both sides could feel like they'd won," he told me.
Except that it didn't work.

So perhaps it's time for a new lesson. Clearly, the Palestinians' concept of winning has little to do with state building and more to do with taking what they are given (like Gaza) and claiming it was won through violence and terrorism (as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have proclaimed).

Meantime, do-gooders like Wolfensohn and his rich friends might just stop trying so hard to help. And governments providing foreign aid might want to beware as well.

Until the Palestinians show some ability to build rather than destroy, to create rather than tear down and burn to the ground, the funding tap really should be turned off.

One test might be the fate of the greenhouses that weren't looted. Some hard-working Palestinians ought to be able to turn them into a thriving business — if their fellow citizens, and their government, will let them.



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