US Economic Development Effort For Palestinians
By Elizabeth Kelleher
USINFO Staff Writer
President Bush Sets Economic Development Effort for Palestinians
A new, joint effort by the U.S. government and private businesses will focus on creating new jobs for Palestinians, President Bush said December 3.
The president's announcement followed successful November talks held in Annapolis, Maryland, at which Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to pursue direct negotiations, supported by the United States, with the aim of establishing a Palestinian state.
Bush spoke at the White House December 3 about the need for economic initiatives to aid Palestinians, especially Palestinian youth, as the parties relaunch the peace process.
After welcoming Tahanni Abu Daqqa, minister of youth for the Palestinian Authority, Bush said, "One of the things that interests me a lot is the fact that we are going to help the Palestinians develop youth centers, places where young Palestinians can come and learn new technical skills, or language skills, or have mentoring programs -- all aimed at saying, there is a hopeful future ... a future where peace is possible."
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the Aspen Institute's Middle East Strategy Group, the government's nonprofit partner in the effort to create jobs and economic activity in Palestinian areas.
Rice said there must be a strong economic component of the two-state solution, which envisions Israelis and Palestinians "living in two democratic states, side-by-side, in peace and security." She cited Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's work with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to organize a December 17 donors' conference in Paris, at which the international community will commit to helping the Palestinian government and people. Rice said the Bush administration will ask Congress for $400 million in economic support for Palestinians for the next fiscal year.
Rice also said such international donations will be needed to support the Palestinian government's budgets for a time and to provide an atmosphere in which a stronger private sector can emerge.
According to George R. Salem, a Washington lawyer with expertise on the Middle East, the unemployment rate is close to 45 percent in the West Bank and higher in Gaza. Salem added that tens of thousands of government employees have been laid off in recent weeks. "There is an educated work force that needs investment to generate jobs," Salem said.
Rice said this new partnership has a role to play in creating jobs for Palestinians. She said that she has spoken with Palestinian officials about a list of roughly 150 business projects that would be possible in the near-term.
The partnership hopes to quickly develop call centers that would generate jobs. At brainstorming sessions December 3 at the Aspen Institute, which took place before and after Rice's speech, business people also spoke of mortgage-backed housing programs that could generate profits.
Rice praised the partnership -- which will be headed by Walter Isaacson, president of the institute, and co-chaired by Sandy Weill, former chairman of Citigroup; Lester Crown, chairman of Material Service Corporation; Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force for Palestine; and Jean Case, chief executive of the Case Foundation.
"Imagine a sign that says, you know, 'We need 500 workers' ... 'We need 1,000 workers,'" Rice said, underscoring the job-creation goals of the partnership.
Rice praised plans, in their early stages, of a business-development conference that might be held in Bethlehem in spring 2008. The California technology company Intel Corporation and Virginia consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton will be involved in the planning if Fayyad embraces the idea and announces a concrete date. Isaacson said he hoped that if such an event occurs, it will attract the chief executives of major U.S. companies, sending a signal that "Palestine is Open for Business."
The youth centers to which Bush referred will be guided by input from the partnership's Case Foundation, founded by Jean and Steve Case (co-founder of America Online). The foundation will build or renovate a handful of community centers to help Palestinian youth.
The centers not only will offer young people opportunities to participate in sports, but also will train coaches and administrators in establishing sports leagues. U.S. businesses will be involved in setting up high-tech classrooms at the complexes to allow local, small businesses to use computers and mentors to train young people in technical skills.
Community centers are planned for three major Palestinian cities -- Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron -- and possibly for two other, more-rural areas.
This partnership's focus on economic development will build on a program announced in Ramallah in July, a small-business loan fund of $228 million. Loans from that program will be awarded in coming weeks and are expected to be a real economic force for Palestinian business growth, according to officials.