- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

An Egyptian story tells of the peasant who finds a bottle. He rubs the bottle and a genie appears, saying to the peasant, “You get one wish.” The peasant wishes immediately for his neighbor’s cow to die. The genie asks, “Why would you want your neighbor’s cow to die, when I can give you 100 cows?” The peasant replies, “I want my neighbor’s cow to die.”

One is reminded of the peasant’s world view when hearing Israelis and Americans discuss the rehabilitation of post-war Gaza. Their focus is on preventing Iran and Hamas from getting any credit for what will be an international reconstruction effort, rather than on bringing relief and a better life to the long-suffering people of Gaza. If Americans and Israelis insist that procedures - guaranteeing Iranian funds and Hamas officials are not involved - must be established before assistance is provided, the assured result will be that Israel and the U.S. will be seen as impeding reconstruction. Iran and Hamas will be seen as facilitating assistance efforts and their standing will be enhanced rather than limited.

Political benefit will redound upon those who provide the most effective assistance in the shortest period of time and with the fewest strings attached. American assistance organizations laden with legislative, regulatory and political restraints are severely handicapped. International organizations suffer similar impediments. Moderate Arab states might be able to provide effective and timely assistance if they are not burdened by too many political considerations.

Aid donors should learn from the assistance provided to Lebanon following the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. While the Lebanese government dithered and the international community planned, Iran and Hezbollah acted. They turned to the Waad Company, which became the primary Iranian channel for assistance in southern Lebanon and the southern Beirut suburbs. Simultaneously, Iran provided $12,000 in cash to each family that had lost its home. Within a few months, Iran and Hezbollah had rebuilt homes and public institutions and repaved many miles of roads. In the process, the economy in these areas was revitalized more quickly than considered possible when the war ended. Both Hezbollah and Iran benefited politically because they responded expeditiously.

The American response to this success was to place Waad on the list of terrorist supporting companies. For many of the people who benefited from Waad reconstruction efforts, the U.S. anti-Waad actions demonstrated that Washington did not care about their suffering, only about punishing those who helped them.

The U.S. and the international community in fact provided extensive assistance to the Lebanese and continue to do so. This assistance is appreciated and produces goodwill. The overall political impact, however, is less than the aid provided by Iran in 2006, because American assistance is less timely and has significant political limitations.

Not all the political consequences of Iranian assistance have been negative. The rebuilding of southern Lebanon and the regional economy gives the people hope and a vested interest in avoiding another war, for they now have more to lose. Consequently, the greatest pressure upon Hezbollah to moderate its policies and to avoid another conflict with Israel comes from its own followers and not from the U.S. and Israel.

This is not to say that Hamas would lose influence or that the Gaza threat to Israel would disappear if life for Gazans were significantly improved. These changes are unlikely to occur unless improved conditions are accompanied by a determined effort to find a political solution. Giving Gazans a better standard of living and a vested interest in preserving their economic environment would create a strengthened constituency in favor of restraining violence and supporting a negotiated settlement. Hamas would face the choice of moderating its positions or losing popular support.

The lesson Lebanon provides for Gaza is that assistance should be direct, substantial and delivered as quickly as possible. Worry less about Iran and more about the Gazans. If $2.5 billion is provided to Gaza, life for the Gazans will be transformed. Construction jobs, road building, etc. will help reduce unemployment significantly. Unlike the Egyptian peasant, the focus of the U.S. and our allies should be enhancing our own image by providing visible, effective assistance - not preventing others from providing it.

The U.S. and our allies should welcome the opportunity to compete with Iran and Hamas in supplying reconstruction and redevelopment assistance. Our resources and competence overwhelms theirs. Only our political and bureaucratic constraints give any chance to Iran and Hamas in Gaza. To paraphrase President Obama, let Gazans and others in the region judge the U.S. by what we build and not by what has been destroyed.

Graeme Bannerman is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, an expert on Lebanon, and previously worked as committee staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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