01 August 2019

The Middle East – Peace for money or money for peace?

Claudiu Nebunu

A chronological dilemma: what came first, the chicken or the egg? Peace has always brought prosperity… but can prosperity appear before peace? What are the chances of the US initiative to promote a peace plan on economic bases? Has something happened at the Manama Conference (Bahrein, June 25-26)? A step forward or a loss of time? The fact that it took place is a success… the result, however, does not appear to be! Before the big decisions, Prime Minister Netanyahu is prosecuted, Trump is held in check by prosecutors, and his son-in-law is criticized by the agencies…

Image source: Mediafax


Under the coordination of Jared Kushner, the advisor of US President Donald Trump and, also, his son-in-law, the Administration in Washington is trying to impose a peace agreement between the Israeli and the Palestinians, under the moniker “the trade of the century”. But Palestinian officials criticized Washington for the new plan being obviously biased towards the Israeli side, as it was drafted without consulting the Palestinians.

The team designated by Trump to handle this problem, starting with his son-in-law, Kushner, and the US representative in the region, Greenblatt, seems to, at least in its initial phase, concentrate on the plan’s potential economic benefits (characteristic to Trump’s entrepreneurial way of thinking), without taking too much into account the scepticism expressed by several experts in the region’s problems, regarding the success of such a “commercial” approach in a place where diplomatic efforts have failed for decades.

The proposal, or as much as is known about it from the details which have emerged, seems to be seen with reservation, if not hostility, by the main players involved… The few Arab states which attended the Manama Conference, which was intended to be the plan’s launch platform, even doubted its possible modest success, which would lead to a serious and long-term initiative to instate peace.

Moreover, the proposed plan places US allies in the region, such as Jordan, in an uncomfortable position, between the option of supporting the American and Saudi option and internal reaction towards Amman supporting what appears to be a “disadvantageous trade” for the Palestinians.

Israeli officials stated that a main part of the American plan is “irrelevant”, while Jordan and Egypt again expressed their support for a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, ignoring the economic side, which Washington wants to highlight.

Kushner has wasted significant political capital in the attempt to promote American interests in the Middle East. As long as the US military component is retreating, what support is there left for the diplomatic approach?

For anyone who follows what is happening in the region closely, the “Peace for prosperity” conference seems to have been only a waste of time… The two sides involved in the conflict, Israeli and Palestinians, expressed little interest in the initiative.

On the other hand, its is very unlikely at the moment that a US initiative will be considered an unbiased approach to the problem, not only because of the close relations between the Trump Administration and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, but also through the lens of Washington’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Manama Conference – was it a step forward… or not?

The great plan for the Middle East, which Jared Kushner has been working on since the Trump Administration’s first year, recently had some of its aspects revealed in the “Peace for prosperity” Conference (June 25-26) which took place in Bahrein. The international media considers that the plan, which was supposed to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, “was born dead” and is “immoral”.

Jordan and Egypt – the only two Arab states which have signed a peace treaty with Israel – sent only clerks to Manama, and authorities in Amman considered that this conference cannot take the place of fully political peace agreement. The Sultanate of Oman – which boycotted the conference – announced, in the same period with the event, its intention to open an embassy in Palestinian terriroties.

Neither Palestinian nor Israeli representatives attended the conference. The White House titles this plan “Peace and prosperity, a new vision for the Palestinian people and for the Extended Middle East” and states that “the US wants to give the Palestinian people the possibility to construct a thriving and vibrant society”.

The Manama Conference focused on the economic side, at the expense of approach political difference, in an attempt to promote the Trump Administration’s peace talks – a somewhat expected approach, due to the US President’s orientation to the economic factor.

The economic proposal stipulates investments of approximately USD50 billion, mainly directed into tourism and infrastructure projects in the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Moreover, there were also talks on a transit corridor to link the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, initiative which will probably see significant political opposition in Israel.

The USD50 billion economic plan proposes massive infrastructure projects and the creation of new jobs for Palestinians. It does not mention anything about Palestine’s political aspirations. The plan also does not tackle the conflict’s central subject: the holy city of Jerusalem being claimed by both countries. These problems were not discussed at the conference in Bahrein.

The international press compares the American plan with the Marshall Plan for Europe after WW2. Back then, the US offered USD12 billion (the equivalent of USD100 billion in 2018) to help rebuild Western Europe’s economies. Now, Jared Kushner showed that the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states will be funded with no more, no less than USD50 billion, from both public and private investments.

According to Kushner, this plan should be the “opportunity of the century” for Palestinians. “I laugh when I see how they (Palestinian leaders, ed.) attack this plan by saying that it is the trade of the century. It will be the opportunity of the century, if they have the courage to follow it,” said Kushner.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestinian National Authority, rejected the White House’s plan. “The economic situation should not be discussed before the political one. As long as there is no political solution, we will not approach an economic solution,” said Abbas.

“Should it be implemented, this plan will allow Palestinians to build the society they have been dreaming about for generations. This vision can be accomplished with support from the international community. But, in the end, the power to apply this plan is in the hands of the Palestinian people. Palestinians can only gain prosperity through peace,” reads the White House’s website on the matter, effectively moving the responsibility of approving or rejecting the plan to the Palestinians.

The American, Arab and Israeli media criticized the plan for the Middle East, however. “The plan was born dead”, because “neither Palestinian nor Israeli representatives attended the summit in Bahrein,” wrote the Washington Post. According to experts, the plan is solid in “financing and creativity”, but is brought down by “its refusal to approach the political problem of territorial control and Palestinian sovereignty”.

In fact, Jared Kushner himself said that peace “will not be possible without a fair and durable political solution which will guarantee Israel’s security and respect the Palestinian people’s dignity”. However, he said, “today is not the moment for political problems. We will come back to them”.

Reflections on a failure. For who?

The proposal of an economic approach to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not new and, certainly, was not pioneered by President Donald Trump and his advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The Israeli side had a similar approach in the past, mostly represented by Shimon Peres and his vision on a New Middle East, as did various international mediators, including the Quartet for the Middle East, created by the UN, US, EU and Russia following the Second Intifada.

Regardless of their shortcomings, the Oslo Accords in 1993 offered a political vision for Peres’ plan – a two-state solution – that was followed by the Paris Protocol in 1994, which established rules to regulate economic relations between the Palestinians and the Israeli.

It is unnecessary to mention that all past proposals have failed for the simple reason of the imbalance between the economy and politics. Kushner’s “deal of the century” has gone even further than all of them, by a large margin, as it totally cuts off politics from the economic solutions.

Since the Madrid conference in 1990, the peace process has been built on the principle of “land in exchange for peace”, according to which Israel should withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967 in exchange for peace and normalizing relations with the Palestinians and Arabs. This represented, in fact, the core of the Arab Peace initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

Kushner decided to replace this principle with the idea of “peace for prosperity”, which effectively reduces the conflict to an economic problem which can be resolved by improving the Palestinian people’s quality of life.

The lack of proposed solutions for major political issues, especially Palestinian statehood, the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return home will only make the proposal be an attempt, failed for the moment, to “bribe” the Palestinians into giving up self-determination.

Another major problem of the Kushner plan is that the funding sources for its ambitious USD50 billion budget is still unclear. Europe, which is traditionally a major donor, did not take part in the conference. Neither did Russia and China. Saudi Arabia, which showed the must enthusiasm for the initiative, is concerned more with its own economic problems and the Yemen war, which cost billions of dollars. The United States, from where the proposal was made, will surely not spend that amount of money, especially under President Trump, who prides himself on obtaining monetary concessions from other states.

Assuming that the money can be ensured, Kushner’s approach will not stimulate the Palestinian economy’s development. The proposal mentions South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, but ignores the fact that these are sovereign states which have full authority on their own national resources. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority does not have control of its borders, infrastructures, ports and airports, land, water and other resources.

Although Kushner’s economic plan is concentrating on economic development, it has serious political implications for the conflict. Trump’s approach does not take the Arab Peace initiative into consideration anymore and treats Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel as equal partners; the Israeli state is not mentioned as part of the conflict. Additionally, complete details on the peace plan were not revealed.

The conference’s timing was, on the other hand, interesting, as it coincided with the visits of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Abu Dhabi (the United Arab Emirates), in the attempt to secure support in escalating tensions with Iran.

Most probably, the conference was scheduled long before Pompeo’s visit… So, the overlap was the other way around! Therefore, the visits made by the US secretary of state cannot be interpreted, in the context of evolutions in the region, other than an act of support against Iran, the main rival for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, in exchange for supporting Washington’s peace initiative in the Middle East…

Provisional epilogue. The political stage is next

With so many deficiencies in the plan, it was no surprise that the Manama meeting was unable to launch a process which would bring together the parties interested in solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, or to even put the basis of a collaboration on economic projects.

Kushner’s USD50 billion commitment failed to inspire potential donors, as well as potential beneficiaries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. The Palestinians rejected his proposals. Even former US politicians who spent most of their careers concentrating on the conflict, such as the former special envoy for the Middle East Peace Process, Dennis Ross, have not supported the plan.

Overall, it seems clear enough that Kushner’s “deal of the century” has few chances to solve the conflict or to offer a vision which will advance in this direction. Furthermore, it served to distract attention from another plan which seeks the continued strengthening of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Trump Administration has already made a couple of important steps towards this direction, including by recognizing the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights by Israel. It is not excluded that the next step will be the US recognizing the annexation of some parts of West Bank, where more than 400,000 illegal Israeli colonists currently live.

Will the Arab peoples accept this type of an approach for the Palestinian cause? It is hard to presume… and has been ever since the first decades of the 20th century. Palestine served as a meeting point and a turntable for the collective liberation fight against colonial powers. Even if most Arab states gained their independence at the middle of the last century, Palestinians have remained in the same situation. “Tahrir falasteen”/ “Palestinian Liberation” has become an essential symbol of the identity and aspirations of modern Arab peoples.

Translated by Ionut Preda