Opinion

The Key to Peace: It's the Economy, Stupid!

Development projects focusing on the Gaza Strip may be the best way to get the Palestinians behind the peace process while relieving its crippling poverty

PALESTINIAN-GAZA-FISHING-DAILY LIFE
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Trapped between recent visits by the White House’s Jared Kushner and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres — and by Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt this week — Israelis and Palestinians have joined together with despaired yawns and mutual finger-pointing perfected by years of conflict. Beyond the blame game, all parties would do well to take responsibility dictated by the late Yitzhak Rabin’s advice that “whining is not leadership.” The conditions to conclude complex negotiations simply do not exist now, but can be recreated.

The Palestinians, sandwiched by the occupation, Fatah-Hamas internecine warfare and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Mahmoud Abbas, care more deeply about basic quality of life issues than endless war. The unpopular Abbas, 12 years into a four-year elected term, has no legitimacy to publicly consider any significant compromises. His inability to reunite the Gaza Strip with the West Bank after 10 years of separation and recent campaign to lay siege to Gaza further illustrates his lack of any conceivable mandate to lead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preoccupied by two criminal investigations and maintaining a very narrow, unstable coalition government that is more right than center. The Israeli security apparatus (upon which both Israelis and Palestinians ultimately depend for their daily personal security) is consumed with threats from a nuclear Iran and that country’s ability now to move in to vacuums created in Syria and a neighborhood inflamed by Al Qaida, the Islamic State and civil wars. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu prefers to avoid another international diplomatic effort whose failure could usher in another conflict based upon a failed U. S. initiative such as followed the Kerry-Indyk 2014 dead-end.

Kushner lamented that the White House does not have anything “unique” to foster a breakthrough given the current circumstances. He should follow Will Rogers’ first law of holes: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. To lay the foundation for a real peace treaty, Washington should abandon the fetishism about “final status negotiations” as long as polls continually show that the populations are fixated on their day-to-day security and economy, and with negative trust between the citizenry.

Political haggling distracts everyone from the pressing fiscal, trade, environmental, business and infrastructure issues that would drastically improve the dire quality of life of Palestinians. Such an economic process would incentivize (rather than incite) the population to support a negotiated solution while providing the political horizon enabling territorial compromises that accommodate these two nations between the river and the sea.

International donors largely ignore economic imperatives and practical solutions. Volatile international aid precludes basic long-term planning needed for durable job creation and economic expansion. Alone, aid-based initiatives increase dependency, bloat the Palestinian civil service and favor insider deals.

Palestinians, Israelis and many regional Arab allies would support a joint economic road map leading to a Palestinian future. This economic approach would garner bipartisan support from the Congressional leadership increasingly wary of continuing to prop up Abbas’s rapidly fading authority.

This requires abandoning the fantasy that the West Bank and Gaza Strip comprise a unified entity. De facto, Gaza became a separate administrative area with the Hamas takeover a decade ago. The West Bank Palestinian Authority has minimal, if any, authority in Gaza. Until recently, the fact that a designated terrorist organization effectively governed the strip made U.S. programming problematic. The diplomatic retrenchment of Hamas in Gaza, led by Egypt with active support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, enables change.

A multilateral joint funding program compliant with U.S. anti-terrorism regulations would animate economic promise for a more viable Palestinian future. This furthers Israeli interests to counter Qatari and Iranian influence while helping to alleviate the impending humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It’s not in anyone’s interest that Gaza remain an impossibly distressed area. The unusual combination of extremely high unemployment and a well-educated population makes a Gaza turnaround possible.

Beyond solving the obvious Hamas failure and resulting humanitarian disaster, development projects would put people to work. Cleaning up the dumps and creating affordable housing, portable marinas and aquaculture for fishing, solar energy for wastewater treatment and electricity are shovel-ready. The list goes on to include projects outlined by the Palestinian private sector initiative Global Palestine, Connected Gaza, which would only be reinforced by a rather extraordinary Israeli idea to build a $5 billion artificial island off the Gazan coast to increase connectivity or extend Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s peace railway to go from Amman to Cairo. Why not? Out-of-the-box thinking about Gaza would yield some quick successes over a litany of failures.

James Prince is president of the Democracy Council, an international nonprofit nongovernmental organization, and former consultant to the Palestinian minister of finance. He can be reached at @JPrince00.

Glenn Yago is senior director of the Jerusalem Institute’s Milken Innovation Center and visiting professor at the Hebrew University Graduate School of Business.