Can you achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians without talking to Israelis or Palestinians? And without talking about peace? Jared Kushner is about to try.
Kushner’s Zen koan of a diplomatic initiative will take place in Bahrain next week. The conference—billed as an “economic workshop”—was supposed to mark the beginning of the rollout of Kushner Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt’s long-awaited peace plan, but it’s looking increasingly like this will be its finale.
To be clear, it’s not strictly true that zero Israelis or Palestinians will be in Bahrain, but it’s not that far off. The Palestinian Authority has been boycotting contact with the U.S. administration since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement last year, as have most major Palestinian business leaders. But a gadfly Palestinian businessman or two may make the trip. The White House is also not planning to invite any Israeli officials to the conference, in order to keep the event “apolitical.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has affirmed that “Israelis will of course participate,” but it’s not clear which Israelis or in what capacity. Israeli media reports suggest they will be private businessmen.
The theory behind the conference—at which finance ministers, rather than foreign ministers, will represent the participating countries to emphasize the event’s “economic” character—is that economic incentives can be used to unlock peace. The U.S. wants to pave the way for an agreement by securing billions of dollars in potential investment in the Palestinian territories. Earlier this year, the U.S. cut all aid to the Palestinian territories, including funds for health, education, and infrastructure projects, but it’s hoping to induce wealthy Arab countries to pick up the tab.
(To the Trump team’s credit, it did manage to corral the reluctant Jordanians into sending a delegation and to secure an invitation for Qatar, a major Palestinian funder that’s also currently under blockade by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. These are somewhat impressive diplomatic achievements, even if they’re in service of something very dubious.)
The idea that economic development for the Palestinians is the key to a breakthrough in the conflict is questionable. The West Bank at least (Gaza is another story) has had periods of impressive economic development before. In 2010, the IMF put the Palestinian real GDP growth rate at around 9 percent, one of the highest in the world, and Tom Friedman was telling people to invest in the Palestinian stock market. It didn’t move the Palestinians any closer toward statehood. As even Trump officials acknowledge anonymously, sustained Palestinian economic growth won’t be possible as long as the conflict and the Israeli occupation continue.
At minimum, Kushner and Greenblatt are hoping to build some good will. But an effective peace plan requires more than that. The “economic” part of their plan is important, but it only makes sense if it’s accompanied with an effort to address the political disputes underlying the conflict, and it’s not clear when, if ever, the Trump administration’s proposals on those issues will be released. The original idea was to release the “political” part of the peace plan this summer, after Israel’s recent elections and the month of Ramadan. But now that Netanyahu has failed to form a government, necessitating new elections in September, Greenblatt says that release might be delayed until November. At that point, the U.S. will be entering its own election year, giving everyone even more incentive to delay any difficult decisions.
There’s a theory floating around that after all Trump has done for Netanyahu, the president will be in a position to demand concessions from the prime minister. But even if Trump were inclined to, it’s hard to imagine him dialing up the pressure on the Israelis while running for reelection, and at this point, it’s not out of the question that Netanyahu will soon be out of office or in jail. As for the Palestinians, the Trump-Kushner bet seems to be that if the economic pressure on them gets great enough and they understand that they’re never going to get what they want—on Jerusalem or settlement removal—they’ll just take the money, even if it comes with a political settlement that falls far short of anything resembling a Palestinian state. But there’s little incentive to do that if Trump might be out of office in 2020.
The best case to be made for an “economy-first” approach to the peace process is that it can at least get the two sides talking and build some trust before getting to the hard stuff. But it’s hard to do that if neither side is even in the room.
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