U.S. Funds Enter Fray In Palestinian Elections

A Palestinian police officer walks past ballot boxes at a Palestinian Election Commission warehouse in the West Bank.
A Palestinian police officer walks past ballot boxes at a Palestinian Election Commission warehouse in the West Bank. (Kevin Frayer - AP)

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By Scott Wilson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 22, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Bush administration is spending foreign aid money to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority on the eve of crucial elections in which the governing party faces a serious challenge from the radical Islamic group Hamas.

The approximately $2 million program is being led by a division of the U.S. Agency for International Development. But no U.S. government logos appear with the projects or events being undertaken as part of the campaign, which bears no evidence of U.S. involvement and does not fall within the definitions of traditional development work.

U.S. officials say their low profile is meant to ensure that the Palestinian Authority receives public credit for a collection of small, popular projects and events to be unveiled before Palestinians select their first parliament in a decade. Internal documents outlining the program describe the effort as "a temporary paradigm shift" in the way the aid agency operates. The plan was designed with the help of a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer who worked in postwar Afghanistan on democracy-building projects.

U.S. and Palestinian officials say they fear the election, scheduled for Wednesday, will result in a large Hamas presence in the 132-seat legislature. Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is at war with Israel and is classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization. But its reputation for competence and accountability in providing social services has made it a stiff rival of the secular Fatah movement, which runs the Palestinian Authority and has long been the largest party in the Palestinian territories.

The plan's $2 million budget, although a tiny fraction of USAID's work here, is likely more than what any Palestinian party will have spent by election day. A media consultant for Hamas said the organization would likely spend less than $1 million on its campaign.

Elements of the U.S.-funded program include a street-cleaning campaign, distributing free food and water to Palestinians at border crossings, donating computers to community centers and sponsoring a national youth soccer tournament. U.S. officials are coordinating the program through Rafiq Husseini, chief of staff to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah.

In recent days, Arabic-language papers have been filled with U.S.-funded advertisements announcing the events in the name of the Palestinian Authority, which the public closely identifies with Fatah. Some of the events, such as a U.S.-financed tree-planting ceremony here in Ramallah that Abbas attended last week, have resembled Fatah rallies, with participants wearing the trademark black-and-white kaffiyehs emblazoned with the party logo, walls plastered with Fatah candidates' posters, and banks of TV cameras invited to record the event.

"Public outreach is integrated into the design of each project to highlight the role of the P.A. in meeting citizens needs," said a progress report distributed this month to USAID and State Department officials. "The plan is to have events running every day of the coming week, beginning 13 January, such that there is a constant stream of announcements and public outreach about positive happenings all over Palestinian areas in the critical week before the elections."

'Window of Opportunity'

The program highlights the central challenge facing the Bush administration as it promotes democracy in the Middle East. Free elections in the Arab world, where most countries have been run for years by unelected autocracies or unchallenged parties like Fatah, often result in strong showings by radical Islamic movements opposed to the policies of the United States and to its chief regional ally, Israel. But in attempting to manage the results, the administration risks undermining the democratic goals it is promoting.

U.S. officials and consultants involved in the program acknowledge that it generated debate inside the aid agency and the two firms hired to manage the project. But U.S. officials said the goal of limiting Hamas's influence in the next Palestinian government overshadowed concerns about the decision not to disclose the U.S. government's role in the campaign.

"We are not favoring any particular party," said James A. Bever, the USAID mission director for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "But we do not support parties that are on the terrorism list. We are here to support the democratic process."

Another U.S. official involved in the program said: "I'm not going to apologize for it. I'm proud of the work we've done."


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