US Middle East Foreign Aid: Investing in Quiet, But Not Peace

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

While the outcome of the Arab revolutions will not be clear for some time, the shifting sands are already revealing certain truths.

One of those has been the misguided use of billions and billions of dollars by the United States over recent decades to support the peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. What the United States invested in was not peace, but rather quiet, the lesser half of peace and quiet. A careful examination shows that the billions invested by the United States in those three countries was earmarked for military aid and economic aid for each country, without any thought, much less investment in bilateral or trilateral projects.

The United States could have decided that some of the annual allocation of $2.8 billion for Israel, $1.5 billion for Egypt, and the $850 million for Jordan had to be designated for projects that had Jordanians, Egyptians, and Israelis working together. As we learned but seem to have forgotten from the Marshall Plan after World War II, one of the key elements to building peace between countries that have a long history of animosity and war is the building of affiliations, partnerships, and relationships between peoples. The peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan were treaties between governments and not people. That has become all too clear through the rising voice of the Arab street heard in the unfolding revolutions taking place before our eyes. Just under the surface of the Arab street’s disgust of its authoritarian leaders is its dislike of the Zionist state.

That dynamic is exacerbated by the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and elements of Arab anti-Semitism, but let us not lose sight of the fact that Israelis, Jordanians, and Egyptians don’t know each other and that phenomenon only compounds the situation. There are scores and scores of people-to-people NGOs in the region, such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which bring individuals together from across borders and model that while disagreements may remain, true personal and professional relationships can be forged.

The telling notion about those NGOs, which do work on bilateral and trilateral projects, is that they do not receive any funding from of those billions mentioned above. They are able to apply for funding from US government programs such as the Office of Conflict Management & Mitigation of USAID (CMM), the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program also of USAID (MERC), the Middle East Peace Initiative of the Department of State (MEPI), and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The combined budgets of these programs that the NGOs from these three countries can apply to come out to less than $35 million a year, far less than the billions the governments of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt get from the US government.

In the current political climate in Washington the Republican party has proposed eliminating funding for the United States Institute of Peace entirely. In addition it is pushing to cut the Economic Support Fund (ESF) by 9 percent, or $630 million, which is where the funding for CMM, MERC, and MEPI comes from. This could actually mean cuts of more than 9 percent for each of those programs since the Republican leadership is forcing each government agency to do their dirty work and play each program against the other within each agency, as each agency decides where cuts should be made. In the hysterics of fixing the deficit reducing the federal budget is a piece of the puzzle, as is a growing GDP which is happening but does not get much attention. In such a climate foreign aid has become an easy target. Most Americans believe that foreign aid is 25 percent of the US budget; it is actually closer to 1 percent. To make matters more embarrassing, the US gives a smaller percentage of its GDP than many countries including giants such as Finland and Holland. To his credit, President Obama has proposed an increase in the budget for USAID for financial year 2012.

The US wanted peace on the cheap by only investing to make sure things are quiet on Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan and not putting enough resources and support to bring the peoples together. The chickens have now come home to roost and that cheap, rather lazy, investment of billions we see was poorly placed. So where does this leave us? The budgets of CMM, MEPI, MERC and the USIP should not be cut; if anything they should be increased. The Middle East is at the beginning of a period of great transition. One thing that we need to hold in place during this regional metamorphosis are the peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors. One of the most important ways to do that is to seriously invest in bringing Egyptians, Israelis, and Jordanians together.              

About Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen works for the Middle East organization, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and is the author of "Einstein's Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul." Contact him at:
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12 Responses to US Middle East Foreign Aid: Investing in Quiet, But Not Peace

  1. Ron Garbe (Dahlke, prefix last name) says:

    Thank God you are doiing His work in such an important field as telling people about the need to support
    the roots of peace, rather than just giving out money that ends up being squandered on weapons, regardless of whose weapons they become.

    Baruch ata Adonai


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