Nobody should be surprised that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are underwhelmed by the invitation Washington has extended to its Bahrain “prosperity workshop,” set to commence Tuesday, and the accompanying economic plan that the White House recently laid out on its website.
The 137-page plan aims to provide $50 billion to finance development projects in Palestinian territory and some neighboring Arab countries. It is the economic component of the long-waited Trump peace plan known as the “Deal of the Century.”
The international and Arab response to this American invitation, like that of Palestinians, also has not been impressive: a handful of Arab governments will be represented by low-level delegations. Jordan and Egypt will send deputy ministers, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – close Trump administration allies – will send ministers.
Palestinians, who seem to have disagreements among themselves on just about everything these days, have been united by the Trump administration’s approach to them and the conflict. The Palestinian Authority and PLO, Hamas, and all other opposition groups are unanimous in refusing to participate in any American-led peace or economic efforts at mediation. Palestinian private sector leaders and businesspersons who were invited to attend the Manama conference sounded proud to announce that they would not be attending. Polls by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre show that the public, too, overwhelmingly rejects the “Deal of the Century,” despite that little is actually known about this much-touted proposal.
There are many reasons for that forceful, unified position – they are political, economic, financial, and practical.
Politically, Palestinians stand opposed to the U.S. role as mediator between Palestinians and Israel. They see that a transformation has taken place in Washington’s position since Donald Trump took office, making the U.S. far too biased towards Israel. The most obvious example of this is Washington’s recognition of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, circumventing the Oslo agreement that stipulated that the future of the city is to be negotiated, and its moving of the U.S. embassy to the city.
Were the Trump administration so concerned for Palestinian economic welfare, why did it levy sanctions against Palestinians and cut aid to destitute refugees and support for important development programs?
Additionally, economically, financially, and practically, Palestinians see little to celebrate in these initiatives. A thorough review of the text of the economic plan gives the impression that it is somewhat similar to other investment plans that have been drafted and discarded over the years. The first such plan, a World Bank document called “An Investment in Peace,” was drawn up during the preparations to establish the Palestinian Authority, and forecast the need for $2.65 billion in medium and long-term investment. Another plan from the Tony Blair-led Quartet promised to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The Quartet was also purportedly working on an additional $150 million initiative to go along with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s political proposals. The prestigious Rand Corporation has even put its resources to the test, developing “The Arc: A Formal Structure for a Palestinian State.”
But the Trump administration plan, unlike these proposals, has tasked no credible, specialized body to calculate the cost of this investment, as far as we know. Moreover, all of the previous plans were part of, or tried to complement, a political plan or vision. Instead, Palestinians suspect that this plan is merely an alternative to a political solution and for them, that is a complete non-starter.
But two other sticking points will stymie this plan, like previous investment schemes – first, no one knows where the funds will come from (Israeli newspaper Haaretz called this the “billion dollar question”). Envoy Jason Greenblatt has suggested that the U.S. expects wealthy Arab countries and European countries to foot the bill for this latest effort, partly through donations and partly through investment. Palestinians have more than two decades of experience working with donors, both Arab and international, which tells us that the price tag of $50 billion is pie in the sky. The growing number of international conflicts and the resulting demand on donor pocketbooks means that neither the Arab states nor Europe are in a position to provide such funding. As a result, European attendance at this week’s Manama meetings will be very limited, and Arab representation appears to be the result of U.S. pressure. In addition, these potential donors will be able to offer the excuse that Palestinians themselves are not at the table asking for their support.
Second, Israel’s occupation puts the brakes on any grand scheme to tempt Palestinians with jobs by improving their economy. Any one of the numerous World Bank reports on economic or development prospects for the occupied Gaza Strip or West Bank, including East Jerusalem, illustrates in vivid detail that Israeli restrictions form major impediments to economic improvement.
Israel, for example, systematically works to separate the West Bank from Gaza. Therefore, it can be expected to block one of the major projects in this plan, that of linking the West Bank to Gaza with a corridor costing $5 billion. Israel has also restricted Palestinian development on two-thirds of the West Bank, putting it in “reserve” for the accelerated expansion of its illegal settlements – a growing priority, apparently, given the hawkish results of the recent Israeli elections.
One can easily conclude, then, that the team that prepared the prosperity plan and its rollout workshop is both completely inexperienced, and much too biased towards Israel. Instead of serving as a platform for restarting a credible negotiations process that could lead to peace, this plan will serve other purposes. It will save face for the Trump administration, which has repeatedly postponed the unveiling of its mysterious “Deal of the Century.” It will save Trump friend and ally Benjamin Netanyahu from having to produce any political proposals that, no matter how biased towards Israel, could create trouble for him with his right-wing government partners. Finally, and significantly, it will take Israel one more step towards normalizing relations with some Arab Gulf states without it having to pay any political price and end its illegal military occupation, as stipulated by the Arab Peace Initiative.
Palestinians and other parties to the conflict have learned a great deal over the last 52 years of occupation. There is no space for economic prosperity under occupation. Improving living conditions for Palestinians does not reduce their thirst for freedom, self-determination, and independence on the basis of international law and the resolutions of the United Nation – a right they cherish just like every other people in the world.
Ghassan Khatib is a faculty member in the Cultural Studies of Birzeit University. He teaches international studies, contemporary Arab studies and cultural studies.