The announcement Sunday that the Trump administration, together with the kingdom of Bahrain, will be hosting the “‘Peace to Prosperity’ economic workshop” in Manama next month was anticlimactic but not unexpected.
The Trump peace plan was once billed as “the Deal of the Century.” It was subsequently downgraded by its author, Jared Kushner, to a “detailed document” and “a vision,” and now all we are left with is a “workshop.”
What’s more, while the stated intention of the workshop is to provide “a prosperous future for the Palestinian people,” it turns out that the Palestinians weren’t even consulted before the invitations were sent out.
Whether or not the Manama workshop goes ahead, given that the Palestinians do not intend to attend, and even if we never get to see this “detailed document” — as seems entirely likely — the two key components of the Trump plan are now very clear. (Trump has apparently yet to read it himself.)
One is the preference for economic over political dimensions. The other is the downgrading of the Palestinians from a party with aspirations to full statehood.
You can argue over whether putting the economic incentives first is sound policy or a recipe for failure, but snubbing the Palestinians by not consulting them in advance over a conference that is supposed to be about them is a clear statement of intention. You don’t ask the Palestinians what they think if you don’t intend to upgrade their status.
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The U.S. team consists of Kushner, U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, special representative Jason Greenblatt and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (was there ever a U.S. diplomatic initiative before in which the secretary of state was so clearly playing fourth fiddle?). While these players are in charge of policy on Israel-Palestine, a Palestinian state is simply not on the table.
The economic dimensions of the Trump plan are not there to pave the way to statehood, but to replace any notion of it. Saying that this is a nonstarter is also a no-brainer.
But the Kushner team at least deserves credit for brushing away some of the doublespeak that has characterized the engagement between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, and much of the diplomatic investment of the so-called international community, for years now. While paying lip service to promoting a two-state solution, much of what has been going on has been about “economic peace,” not a political settlement.
For eight years, the senior international representative to the region was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who between 2007 and 2015 filled the role of envoy of the Middle East Quartet (which consists of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia).
Blair devoted his time to economic initiatives and did little if anything to advance political issues. The disappointment at Blair’s lack of achievement, though he was allowed to remain in the position for nearly a decade, led to the downgrading of the envoy role and the gradual disappearance of the Quartet as a player (though it still maintains an office and staff).
But while Blair may have left the building, the de facto emphasis on economic affairs has not changed.
In the past five years, since former Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to kick-start the diplomatic process failed, there have only been economic inducements. The Trump team is merely taking the status quo and promoting it as a solution.
When in late 2015 a wave of stabbings and other violent attacks by “lone wolf” assailants broke out, the preferred strategy of the defense establishment, accepted by the Netanyahu government, was to continue the policy of allowing around 100,000 Palestinians to work in Israel and the West Bank settlements. The policy of creating an economic inducement to quell the violence was a major factor in preventing the attacks spreading.
Likewise, every round of rocket fire and airstrikes between Israel and Hamas (and other Palestinian factions) since Operation Protective Edge concluded in in Gaza in August 2014 was ended with agreements of an economic nature: The transfer of goods and diesel fuel through the crossings to Gaza; limited exports of agricultural goods; and gradual expansion of the Strip’s offshore fishing zone.
And in recent months, the financial aspect of the Gaza cease-fires has become even more pronounced with the Qatari cash payments, which have bought more periods of quiet from Hamas.
The diplomatic paralysis has left only two avenues of engagement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority: Security coordination; and regular meetings between Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and senior Palestinian ministers on economic matters.
Likewise, the only remaining senior international intermediary between the sides, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, has been almost exclusively focused since his appointment in 2015 on economic and humanitarian issues. The “peace process” bit of his title has been nonexistent.
For five years, there has been almost no pressure on either side to rekindle the diplomatic process — and that includes the last two and a half years of the Obama administration, when nearly all diplomatic efforts were dedicated to the Iran nuclear deal.
In the absence of politics, economics has naturally filled the vacuum — because even if there is no prospect of statehood on the table, people still need to eat and aspire to a better standard of living. It is not a substitute that the Palestinians will ever accept in the long run, but at least the Trump team is not trying to perpetuate the myth of 100 diplomatic statements that anyone is actually working to achieve the two-state solution.
Kushner and Friedman share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological belief that the Palestinians do not need or deserve a state and that, ultimately, they can be browbeaten and exhausted into accepting semi-autonomy in a series of enclaves in Gaza and, at best, half of the West Bank.
They believe that by offering the Palestinians economic incentives to do so, they are both being generous and preparing the ground for Israeli annexation after the Palestinians turn them down.
This is a dangerous policy that will ultimately push the Palestinians to desperation and another intifada. But no serious international player — not the UN, the EU or any other country’s leader, Western or Arab — is prepared to invest serious political capital and pressure Israel to take an alternative course.