Obama seeks to double US foreign aid

Israel to get $2.77 billion in 2010; new US administration meets Syrian diplomats for first time.

imad moustapha 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
imad moustapha 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Despite America's deep economic crisis, the Obama administration's 2010 budget unrolls a program to double total foreign aid, which includes that for Israel and the Palestinians, according to a budget overview released Thursday. Israel is expected to receive $2.77 billion in aid in 2010, as called for in the memorandum of understanding in place between the two countries that increases the allocation from the $2.5b. given this year, though the specific sum wasn't detailed in the budget overview. The $3.55 trillion budget overview gave no figures for specific foreign aid programs or other spending, but focused broadly on priorities such as health care reform and education. It did, however, indicate total spending for the State Department and other foreign operations would be $51.7b., up from the Bush administration's allocation of $47.2b. projected for 2009. In addition to the increased funding for Israel, the United States is also expected to pledge $900 million in reconstruction aid for the Palestinians at next week's donors' conference in Cairo, though it remains unclear which funding pool that money will be drawn from. Though Israel has felt confident that it would get the funds spelled out in the MOU, questions had been raised about the Obama administration's commitment to foreign aid as a whole once the financial situation became so acute. While US President Barack Obama initially pledged during the campaign to double annual foreign aid to $50b. over the four years of his term, foreign aid was one of the only areas Vice President Joe Biden mentioned as a possible place for cuts when asked during a debate what priorities would be reassessed in light of the financial crisis. Groups tracking the funding were reassured by the proposed budget, even though the total figure for fiscal year 2010 was not clear. The budget, according to the text put out Thursday by the Office of Budget Management, "puts the United States on a path to double foreign assistance. By increasing foreign assistance, the United States will reach out to the global community and renew its role as a leader in global development and diplomacy." One Capitol Hill staffer who deals with these issues expressed relief that the administration wasn't "scapegoating" foreign aid as has happened in the past during times of economic trouble. Congress will needs to approve the budget, whose details are supposed to be made available in the spring. One key Congressional figure, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, praised the budget outline for its "realistic approach to the great challenges facing our nation around the world, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East," and because it would "strengthen our diplomatic and development infrastructure, two critical elements of our national security." The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also welcomed the financial plan. "It's our understanding that the president's budget request includes $2.775b. in security aid to Israel for FY-2010, in line our commitment under the 10-year plan," AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said. "We applaud the administration for strengthening America's commitment to Israel's security and understanding the unique defense challenges facing our democratic ally Israel." The Orthodox Union, however, questioned proposed regulations that would reduce the amount of tax deductions from charitable contributions, found in a separate section of the budget. The OU expressed "grave concerns" about the provision, which it said would "harm charities across the American landscape." Also Thursday, State Department officials greeted the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, for his first such meeting since the new administration came to office. The State Department described the meeting as an opportunity to lay out issues it has with Damascus's support for Hizbullah and pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as to discuss progress on bilateral issues. "Syria plays an important role in the region and it is our hope that the Syrian government will play a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region," a State Department official said after the meeting, which was led by acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. Though the meeting was seen as aimed at easing tensions, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was still "too early to tell" whether relations between the two countries will improve.