US pushes Palestinian economic plan amid doubts, hostility

Updated June 25, 2019


Hebron: Palestinian men sit around a makeshift coffin with the words,  “No to the deal of the century”, during a protest on Monday against a US-led meeting in Bahrain.—AFP
Hebron: Palestinian men sit around a makeshift coffin with the words, “No to the deal of the century”, during a protest on Monday against a US-led meeting in Bahrain.—AFP

MANAMA: Despite withering criticism, charges of hypocrisy and outright rejection from the intended beneficiaries, the Trump administration is ploughing ahead with a $50 billion economic proposal to aid the Palestinians and hopes it will drive a much-anticipated but unseen Mideast peace plan.

The United States has attracted only lukewarm support from its traditional partners in Middle East peacemaking and is convening the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop this week in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain under the shadow of rising tensions with Iran that could ignite regional conflict.

The two-day conference that begins Tuesday in Manama has drawn governmental and private sector participants from dozens of countries, but lacks official Israeli or Palestinian delegations.

The event includes presentations from President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the heads of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. But the seven-page programme for the workshop contains no discussion of how to resolve the political disputes at the core of the long-running conflict.

The administration acknowledges that its ambitious economic proposals are contingent on acceptance of a political plan, which will not come out until the fall.

“How anything could come out of that agenda is hard to know,” said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar and the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

The programme does not mention Israel or Palestine and refers to Palestinians by name only four times. One of those references is in the description of the sole Palestinian participant with a speaking role at the meeting, a West Bank businessman who works with Israeli settlers and is viewed with deep suspicion by his many fellow Palestinians.

The administration has refused to endorse a “two-state solution,” a goal long viewed by many as the only viable way to secure lasting peace, and the 40-page proposal and its longer annex do not use the phrase. Nor do the documents offer any hint as to who will pay for the programmes, which include health, education and public works projects in the West Bank, Gaza and for Palestinian communities in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

Lebanon is boycotting the conference. Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab nations with peace treaties with Israel, are sending only midlevel officials. Their acceptances of invitations to Bahrain, similar to those of other Arab states, include the caveat that they will not support a peace deal that the Palestinians won’t accept.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said on Monday that his country is participating to listen to the proposal. “We have the right to evaluate and review it,” he said in an interview with Russia Today. But, he added, “the final decision is for the Palestinian Authority.” The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is having none of it. “The workshop was meant to address the economic problems, but the real problem is the political one,” he said.

“The Palestinians are seeking an entity, statehood, and after that we look at the economy.”

Hundreds of Palestinians on Monday protested against the conference, pouring into the streets of West Bank cities, from Hebron to Nablus; many burned effigies of Trump and Bahrain’s king. Protesters in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, carried a giant coffin labelled “Bahrain workshop,” and signs that said “The Deal of the Century is doomed.” Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said his government would listen but he offered no guarantee he would endorse the plan. He said security, which must be addressed in political negotiations, will always be the paramount issue for Israel.

“We will hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness, and I cannot understand how the Palestinians before they even heard the plan reject it outright. That’s not the way to proceed. We believe that peace is coupled and dependent on security,” he said.

Many former US officials who participated in earlier rounds of failed diplomacy have criticised the proposal on similar grounds. Without any insight into the administration’s ideas on specific security and territorial intentions, they say the economic proposal is unrealistic.

Dave Harden, a former mission director for the West Bank and Gaza for the US Agency for International Development, noted that the types of projects listed in the plan have around for years.

“I don’t think that they’re being realistic about how hard it is,” he said. “Even if you have the money, implementation can be an immense challenge.” Harden said a road project in the West Bank and a 150-yard water line near the Gaza border took years to win Israeli approval. Defenders of the plan say it should be given a chance.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2019