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U.S. funds enter fray in Palestinian elections

The Bush administration is spending foreign aid money to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority on the eve of critical elections in which the governing party faces a serious challenge from the Islamic group Hamas.
A Palestinian police officer votes in parliamentary elections in the West Bank city of Nablus on Sunday.
A Palestinian police officer votes in parliamentary elections in the West Bank city of Nablus on Sunday.Emilio Morenatti / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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."

"We weren't trying to be some black-box SWAT operation," said the official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the record. "But we want to be able to say we did everything we could to support peaceful coexistence here. There's no tomorrow if we end up with a worsening conflict" after the elections.

Hamas is reaping the benefits of years of grass-roots social work and political organizing in the West Bank and Gaza as it prepares for its first national election. It opposes Israel's right to exist and has vowed to maintain its armed wing, which has carried out attacks and suicide bombings inside Israel and the territories.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is suffering from a reputation for corruption, divisions within Fatah and a continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank that has made Abbas's pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement unappealing to many Palestinians. Public opinion polls have shown the race tightening in recent weeks, with Hamas now running even with Fatah.

According to interviews with U.S. and Palestinian officials here and in Washington as well as project documents obtained by The Washington Post, the plan to help promote the Palestinian Authority, and by extension Fatah, began emerging as Israel ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza in August.

"In light of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, a critical window of opportunity has emerged," stated an October document outlining the scope of the Gaza Action Plan Support Unit, as the program is known. The document, prepared by ARD, a consulting firm based in Burlington, Vt., that was hired to manage the project, said the goal was to "help lay the foundation for successful, moderate leadership in Gaza as well as the West Bank." It listed the Palestinian Authority as its "direct beneficiary."

Most U.S. development assistance here, which last year totaled roughly $400 million, consists of water pipelines, sewage treatment plants, public libraries and roads, which bear the USAID logo alongside the seal of the Palestinian Authority. But Bever said the agency, which previously wanted to showcase U.S. aid, recently decided to emphasize the Palestinian Authority's role to a greater degree after polls showed a majority of Palestinians are aware of the overall extent of U.S. assistance.

Downplaying U.S. credit

The project is supervised by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which specializes in promoting U.S. interests during times of political change in foreign countries and has the ability to spend money faster than other departments, according to agency officials.

The office hired ARD, which in turn subcontracted the project to a Washington-based firm, Strategic Assessments Initiative, or SAI, known for its largely academic work on issues such as Palestinian security reform. SAI had no experience in development work and had never worked for USAID.

Amjad Atallah, the company's president, said he was not authorized to talk about the project, though he said it raised concerns within his organization. Atallah said he agreed to work on the contract only after USAID agreed to his requests that Palestinian teams work in the field and that the program be coordinated through the office of President Abbas, who is not a candidate in the election.

USAID also brought in an independent consultant, Larry Sampler, to "help us think about how to do this," the U.S. official involved in the program said. Sampler was described by people who know him as an earnest, intense man who served 15 years in the Army Special Forces and worked as a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan.

According to documents from a planning presentation Sampler gave to U.S. officials in Washington and Tel Aviv in October, he raised several questions about how closely the U.S. government should be identified with the project. The documents also suggest that U.S. officials expected the project to become involved in party politics.

"To whom should credit accrue?" Sampler asked in one slide of the presentation. "Issues of branding and how closely associated candidates and parties want to be or should be associated with the USG [U.S. government]. What should be the nature of that relationship?"

Plans called for roughly 40 small projects or events, ranging in cost from $5,000 to $50,000 each, that would benefit the Palestinian Authority. No USAID logos would be used.

Asked if the decision not to use the USAID brand was a way to hide its involvement, Bever said, "I could see it could look that way." He said some of the projects might bear the agency logo, although it was not apparent on those visited by reporters from The Post or in ads published this week.

"We wanted to give maximum credit to the Palestinian Authority and to the freely elected president, Mahmoud Abbas, for taking the initiative and for inviting us to help get the message out to the Palestinian people," Bever said.

The point man in Abbas's office was his chief of staff, Husseini, a member of a prominent Jerusalem family. In an interview last week, Husseini said U.S. officials told him they had about $2 million to spend on 30 or so projects before the elections. He said his office provided them with "names of people who could do this best."

"It was some small money to help us quickly affect the lives of people. It was to show that the Palestinian Authority cares," Husseini said. "They were very responsive and understood we needed to have a better impact."

"Campaigning may come into this, but only marginally," Husseini said. "It is not political campaigning, but campaigning for the Palestinian national cause, as Mahmoud Abbas sees it."

In recent days, the newspapers Al-Ayam and Al-Quds have featured ads for projects described in the Action Plan Support Unit's most recent progress report. On some days, three such ads -- all bearing the seal of the Palestinian Authority but no USAID logo -- appeared on a single page.

"Why so many ads at the same time?" said Saad Abdul Hadi, whose Ramallah-based public relations company, Al-Nasher, is doing the advertising. "Because we are in a very sensitive time, in the elections. That's why now."

In Jericho last week, 10 teams gathered in the municipal stadium in the hopes of winning the first-ever Olive Cup, the U.S.-funded championship of Palestinian youth soccer. As boys darted across the patchy field in uniforms purchased with money from USAID, banners bearing the emblem of the Palestinian Authority and a new logo created for the U.S.-funded projects celebrated the event, which was attended by several hundred Palestinians.

Ibrahim Sabbah, 40, director of the sports division of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, said he had been asking Palestinian leaders for years to finance such a tournament. This month, Husseini's office told him $10,000 was available immediately.

"I was very surprised," Sabbah said. "And very happy. We were able to do this very quickly because we had been planning it for years. But we'd never had the money until now."

Sabbah said he knew only that the funds came from the Palestinian Authority president's office. It didn't matter who paid for the event, he said happily, as teams from Jenin and Nablus took the field. In a few hours, representatives from Husseini's office would arrive with the Olive Cup trophy and medals for the winners.

Kessler reported from Washington.