Opinion

Congress makes Elmo cry by defunding Palestinian 'Sesame Street'

In protest of the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen froze $192 million in funding for USAID programs, including a Palestinian version of 'Sesame Street.' The move has not only jeopardized the show, but US Mideast policy.

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    Actor Rajai Sandouka holds Kareem, the main character of Sharaa Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, in Ramallah Jan. 5. The producers of the iconic children's program say they have been forced to put production for the 2012 season on hold because of a funding freeze by the US Congress.
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There will be no Big Bird, Elmo, Bert, or Ernie for Palestinian children as long as their leaders continue their quest for United Nations recognition. That’s the latest message Palestinians are receiving from Congress.

In December, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee escalated pressure against the Palestinian statehood appeal to the UN by freezing $192 million in funding for USAID programs. Those funds go primarily to hospitals, education, and government institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. One of the largest programs affected by the suspension of aid is the iconic children’s show, the Palestinian version of "Sesame Street," known in Arabic as Sharaa’ Simsim.

The move not only jeopardizes "Sharaa’ Simsim," but the Obama administration’s efforts to improve American relations with the Middle East.

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The show first began in 1996 and worked to promote messages of peace, tolerance, and diversity. According to the show’s executive producer, Dauod Kuttab, USAID funded the program with a budget of $2.5 million between 2008 and 2011. An additional $2.5 million was scheduled to cover the program’s costs until 2014.

“If we had funding,” Mr. Kuttab says, “we would be writing scripts, we would be reviewing scripts, we would be hiring film-makers to produce the videos.” Though the program worked to promote peace and tolerance, its staff of 80 may face the harsh reality of unemployment.

The suspension of funding to programs like "Sharaa’ Simsim" is hugely detrimental for both US policymakers and the people of the Middle East. First, it deepens mistrust and widens the chasms between US foreign policy and people in the region. And this occurs at a critical time, when unprecedented political change – the Arab Spring – is taking place.

The freeze on these aid programs also damages US soft power abroad, as "Sesame Street" is a landmark American show.

The fund suspension reinforces already widespread suspicions about the “real motives” of US aid to the region, causing people to see it merely as a bargaining tool to support a political agenda rather than to promote peace and improve humanitarian conditions.

The lawmaker behind the freeze is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Her action appears aimed at demonstrating to her constituents and to the Israel lobby that she is taking tough action against the Palestinians. The temptation exists to use foreign policy solely to bolster individual election campaigns.

Regardless of what the real philosophy of American aid to the region is, this perception that political gain trumps peace building is becoming increasingly widespread among global observers, especially in the Middle East, and may irreparably harm the US image in the region.

While it has frozen humanitarian aid, the United States continues to support Palestinian Authority security forces by funding training and equipment. This reinforces the notion that Washington is interested solely in maintaining Israel’s security.

Because of the aid freeze, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has publicly rejected the $150 million earmarked for security service. If he failed to provide education and health while delivering security to Israel, Mr. Abbas would be committing political suicide. The decision would make the PA seem eager to guard the interests of Israel while compromising on Palestinian basic rights of education and health.

As Kuttab explained to The Washington Post, “Palestinians would see the aid as analogous to the 30 pieces of silver that were accepted by Judas Iscariot when he delivered Jesus – a position Abbas does not want to be in.”

The "Sharaa’ Simsim" cancellation raises the question of whether a US bias toward Israel is reflected not only in the political arena but in the humanitarian realm as well. Congress has frozen the funds for Palestinians, but the State Department is investing $750,000 in the Israeli version of "Sesame Street." Danny Labin, an executive at the Israeli television station that co-produces the Israeli "Sesame Street," expressed concerns, calling the act “extremely unfortunate.”

The funding cuts should provide an important lesson to the Palestinians as well. They should learn that diversifying their sources of funding is vital not only for the survival of worthwhile programs like "Sharaa’ Simsim" but also for their national independence. The Palestinians should not accept a partnership that forces them to choose between an educational show for children and their statehood appeal at the United Nations.

Ibrahim Sharqieh is a fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution and deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. He holds a PhD from George Mason University’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution School. Follow him on Twitter: @sharqieh and Facebook: Ibrahim Sharqieh

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