Washington, 30 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States opens an international conference today aimed at strengthening the Middle East peace process by raising money for Palestinian projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
President Bill Clinton is scheduled to make the opening remarks today at the State Department.
About 38 nations, to be represented by their foreign ministers, are expected to attend the one-day meeting. It will be chaired by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said Syria and Lebanon both turned down an invitation to attend. The official said, however, that the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers will attend as well as those from other Arab countries.
Analysts say the attendance of Saudi Arabia and Egypt is important because the Saudis have great oil wealth and Egypt has considerable political influence in the Middle East.
The European Union will also be represented.
The conference comes less than two weeks after a decision by the Israeli cabinet to order a withdrawal of troops from part of the West Bank. The Cabinet gave the order after it agreed that the Palestinians had met their initial security obligations under the interim peace accords signed in Washington last month. A substantial Israeli troop presence remains in the West Bank in the absence of a final peace agreement between the two sides.
State Department spokesman James Rubin says the Washington meeting seeks to build on a donors' conference held after the Israelis and Palestinians signed their first peace agreement, the Oslo Accords, in 1993. That conference drew pledges of 3,900 million dollars. Of that amount, about $2.100 billion was actually distributed during a five-year period to Palestinian economic projects such as road and school construction.
The State Department official, who asked not to be identified, explains the purpose of the Washington conference this way:
"One way to underpin peace and build a constituency for peace is to make certain that people are better off, and obviously that's one of the things we would like the donor community to do its utmost to achieve."
The United Nations says unemployment in Palestinian Authority areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip fell sharply in the first half of 1998, mainly because of fewer Israeli-imposed border closures. However, the U.N. says unemployment still stands at 15.6 percent.
A recent report by the Palestinian Authority says 23 percent of families in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, live below the poverty line.
The U.S. administration says it will offer "substantially" more than $500 million in aid over the next five years.
The 100 million-dollar a year for the Palestinians compares with the $2.8 billion dollars the United States gives to Israel annually. Egypt also gets substantial U.S. aid.
In an effort to strengthen the peace process, Clinton will travel to Gaza next month to address Palestinian leaders at a meeting called to formally revoke anti-Israeli clauses in the Palestinian Charter.
Clinton will also visit the West Bank and Israel during a four-day trip that begins on Dec. 12. He will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinians say they already have revoked key clauses that called on the destruction of Israel. However, this contention did not satisfy the Israeli government, and during peace talks last month, Arafat agreed to call a meeting of the Palestinian National Council to "reaffirm" the decision to annul the clauses.