World Leaders Aim to Raise $5.6 Billion in Palestinian Aid

The world rallied to the support of the embattled Palestinian government Monday, and the co-chairman of a donors' conference said he was confident they could meet a $5.6 billion target in aid.

World leaders at the conference also urged Israel to ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank and Gaza to make a recovery of the Palestinian economy possible.

Some 90 countries and international organizations came together in Paris for the biggest pledging conference in more than a decade.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is asking for $5.6 billion from 2008 to 2010, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, the conference co-chairman, said: "I am confident that we can make that."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged $555 million for 2008. However, the money includes about $400 million that the White House announced but has not been approved by Congress.

For renewed peace efforts to succeed, she said, "the continued and unwavering support of the international community is absolutely vital. That is why we are here today, and not a moment too soon."

"The Palestinian Authority is experiencing a serious budgetary crisis," Rice said. "This conference is literally the government's last hope to avoid bankruptcy."

From international Mideast envoy Tony Blair to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, participants called for urgent action, saying a new chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal must not be missed. Peace talks resumed last week after seven years of diplomatic deadlock, and international aid is seen as key to making the process work.

"We will not rest until we have that two-state solution a reality in this region of the world," Blair, a co-sponsor of the conference, told the conference.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the donors must "invest now, invest generously, and remain steadfast in their financial commitments over the next 36 months."

Some of the biggest donors announced their pledges at the start of the conference. The European Union said it would give $650 million in 2008 and Norway pledged $140 million a year for three years. Britain, France and Germany announced a combined $1.08 billion for three years.

Western donors have urged Arab states to do more. Since 2002, Arab League members have been promising the Palestinians $55 million a month but have not always paid in full.

Two key issues dominated the conference: the need for Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians while not compromising on its security, and the fate of Gaza, which has been virtually cut off from the world since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control by force in June.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the Paris conference "a declaration of war against the Hamas movement." Last weekend, Hamas leaders told tens of thousands of supporters at a rally that Hamas will not recognize Israel or renounce violence.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas used the high-profile platform to urge Israel to remove roadblocks quickly, stop building its separation barrier in the West Bank and to freeze settlement expansion, "without exceptions." The first round of peace talks had been overshadowed by Israel's decision to expand a Jewish neighborhood, built on war-won land on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Abbas said the Palestinians are committed to reform their government, restructure the security forces, and work hard to restore order in the often lawless Palestinian territories.

He had harsh words for Hamas, reiterating that he will not resume a dialogue with the militants unless they hand back control of Gaza to Abbas' security forces. He also warned that without continued international aid, Gaza is "heading into disaster."

About three-fourths of Gaza's 1.5 million residents live in poverty, and the blockade — Israel and Egypt virtually closed borders after the Hamas takeover — has wiped out tens of thousands of jobs.

Donor representatives called on Israel to ease restrictions, but did not make it clear whether this only applied to the Abbas-controlled West Bank or also to Gaza.

"It is hard to see how the Palestinians can make reasonable progress without improved access in their territories," Stoere said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called the Palestinian reform plan "a serious effort to build the basis for a responsible Palestinian state that the Palestinian people so deserve and that peace so needs."

Livni said Israel is committed to its road map obligations, "including in relation to settlement activities," but did not elaborate.

Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, welcomed Livni's comments as "very significant." Moussa urged the donors to follow the situation concerning roadblocks and settlements closely.

Fayyad is trying to assure donor countries — which gave more than $10 billion to the Palestinians in the past decade — that they are not expected to prop up the Palestinian government indefinitely.

He has presented a three-year reform plan with promises to cut government spending by trimming a bloated public payroll and reducing hundreds of millions of dollars in utility bills.

Still, Fayyad wants 70 percent of the aid initially to go toward reducing his huge budget deficit, with the emphasis shifting only gradually to development projects.

Economists say it's not enough for the donors to pledge aid and for the Palestinians to carry out reforms. The Palestinian economy will only recover, according to the World Bank, if Israel eases sweeping physical and administrative restrictions on movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has been reluctant to do so, putting security first.