Why Jared Kushner’s Bahrain Conference Won’t Do Much for the Palestinian Economy
SOURCE: THE NEW YORKER
BY: BERNARD AVISHAI
The Trump Administration’s team for Israel and the Palestinian territories—Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s chief negotiator in the region—has invited Middle East stakeholders to attend a “workshop” titled “Peace to Prosperity” on June 25th and 26th, in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Workshop discussions, according to a buoyant White House statement, will facilitate “an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region,” including “rapid private-sector growth.” The agenda, an Administration spokesperson said, will focus on investments in infrastructure, industry, people, and governance; donors will pledge “grant money, low-interest loans and then also private capital.” Kushner, famously, has been leading the team in devising a comprehensive, and so-far secretive, peace plan. (He has insisted that the plan is imminent; the workshop is purportedly a first lifting of the veil.) The workshop, the spokesman said, will not deal with “political” aspects of the plan—borders, security, and so forth—but will roll out its economic foundation. Palestinians, Kushner said, “deserve a future with dignity and the opportunity to better their lives.”
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf emirates (including the Saudi foil Qatar) have accepted the invitation. Israel will send business leaders but no government officials. (Trump Administration officials said they wanted things this way, “to keep the event from being ‘political.’ ”) The European Union will be sending a “technical level official, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development confirmed it would have “someone” there, as will the International Monetary Fund. (The E.U. is currently the largestexternal funder of the Palestinian Authority, with an allocation of about one and a quarter billion dollars between 2017 and 2020.) The United Nations will be sending its deputy Middle East coordinator. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has declined.
The senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat released a statement asserting that the Palestinians’ “full economic potential can only be achieved by ending the Israeli occupation, respecting international law and UN resolutions.” The P.A.’s position, he added, was supported by “all Palestinian political movements and factions.” A group representing the Palestinian private sector, which accounts for approximately eighty per cent of the Palestinians’ gross domestic product, followed with a statement of its own. “The Trump Administration,” it said, “has decided to postpone the release of its political vision for Mideast peace and is leading instead with its economic plan, ostensibly offering a carrot before the stick.”
The Kushner team is not happy about this rejection. “They have nothing to lose and much to gain if they do join us,” Greenblatt responded. On its face, his logic seems plausible, not a quality often attached to Trump Administration claims. Estimates of funding for the Palestinians to be raised at the workshop, largely from the oil states, have ranged as high as sixty-eight billion dollars over ten years. This kind of money may not help Palestinians achieve their “full” potential, but it ain’t hay. (The entire annual P.A. budget is normally less than two billion dollars.) Nor is it certain that the Kushner team intends merely to substitute economic inducements for political resolutions (ending “the Israeli occupation,” and so forth). Kushner told Jonathan Swan, of “Axios on HBO,” that he supports Palestinian self-determination. “Economic progress can only be achieved,” he has said, “with a solid economic vision and if the core political issues are resolved.”
There are reasons to doubt the Kushner team’s sincerity. The “political issues” that the Administration has addressed so far include moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; cutting off nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in aid to the Palestinians, as punishment for the refusal to receive the Kushner team after the Embassy move; and shutting down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington, D.C., office. Kushner’s team, Swan said, is composed of “three Orthodox Jews,” two of whom—Friedman and Greenblatt—have “funded settlements,” and Kushner did not dispute his characterization. A few days after that, Friedman told the Times that, in some instances, Israel “has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
None of this proves that the workshop is a bad idea, however, or that the team is disingenuous in proposing it. “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” the Jewish sages said, an aphorism that the team would surely embrace: material wealth is a precondition for dignity. Wouldn’t an infusion of cash into the West Bank’s (and Gaza’s) infrastructure lead to a relaxation of extreme political demands all around? Why not bank the wealth now and reap the dignity later? “It’s an attempt to give life to their aspirations by creating a viable economy,” Friedman said.
Actually, the orthodoxy that makes the Kushner workshop so one-sided, and vain, is not Jewish but Republican: the default idea that governments only get in the way of private sectors that would otherwise steam along on their own; that Palestinian businesses would do just fine if the P.A. were shrunk down, to use the conservative economic activist Grover Norquist’s formulation, to the point that it could be “drowned in the bathtub.” Erekat does not want Palestinian political claims eclipsed, but he is making an economic point. He raises the Israeli occupation not simply because it preëmpts Palestinian national sovereignty—recognized borders, and so forth—but because it preëmpts the economic institutions that would grow within those borders—commercial courts, tax-collection agencies, immigration agencies, startup incubators—that would make Palestinian entrepreneurship more feasible, especially in an age of technological advances, as Israeli entrepreneurs well know. The Palestinians’ economic problem isn’t a lack of money; it’s a lack of liberty. Liberty requires a sovereign government.