Olmert promises $2 bn to rebuild northern Israel
Nahariya (Israel), Aug 24: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised more than 2 billion dollars in reconstruction funds today for areas of northern Israel damaged during the 34-day war with Hizbollah.
Olmert expects up to 300 million dollars in donations from abroad, principally from American Jewish organisations, and said he would make it a priority in coming budgets to provide extra resources for the country's north.
''I estimate that in the course of more than one budget year, sums that could reach 2.3 billion dollars could be collected,'' Olmert told local leaders and officials during a visit to Nahariya, a town just south of the Lebanese border.
''The essence of our mission is to push forward these events from despair to an opportunity. Billions will be invested... to turn the north into the paradise it can be.'' He did not say where the funds would come from and said his cabinet would begin discussing the spending adjustments in the coming weeks. Olmert's poll ratings have sunk since the war and he is keen to show that he can deliver to voters.
Israel's budget for 2006 has only just been passed, although further adjustments are expected due to the extra costs of the war in Lebanon. Deliberations on the 2007 budget are due to begin shortly, with many politicians opposing higher spending.
''Next week we will convene a special cabinet that will meet in the north and discuss northern Israel,'' said Olmert, who was sworn in last May as the head of a broad coalition.
''More funds from existing budgets will also be invested. All of this will be elaborated in a plan that will be approved not in one year, but within two weeks.'' In recent weeks, Jewish organisations in the United States such as the United Jewish Appeal have been raising funds to help rebuild homes and schools in the north, which was hit by around 4,000 Hizbollah rockets during the war.
Olmert said he expected to receive ''more than 300 million dollars'' in donations from overseas donors and would invest it in developing underfunded or impoverished northern communities.
More than one million people in the north were affected by Hizbollah missiles. Many of them fled south to escape the rockets. Some returned to find their homes badly damaged or destroyed and others stayed in bomb shelters.
Since the war ended with an August 14 ceasefire, there have been popular demonstrations against the government and the way the war was carried out, particularly among army reservists.
Many viewed the ceasefire as a failure for Israel because Hizbollah's leadership was still standing and the two Israeli soldiers, whose capture by Hizbollah on July 12 sparked the conflict, were still in captivity.
During visits to several northern towns, Olmert repeatedly promised to do all he could to improve life for residents.
''I promise we will come more than a few times. This is Israel's biggest national priority,'' he said. ''I hope it will be the first step to a real return to normalcy.''