Argument

Trump Has Misdiagnosed the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The White House’s economic plan for Gaza and the West Bank should invite skepticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right,  shakes hands with Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's senior advisor, in Jerusalem on May 30.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's senior advisor, in Jerusalem on May 30. Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem/AFP/Getty Images

After more than two years of delays, the Trump administration earlier this month announced the first piece of its much-anticipated plan to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The White House will convene an international conference on June 25 and 26 in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, reportedly to promote investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Dubbed the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, these two days are intended to raise tens of billions of dollars in pledges from Arab, European, and Asian countries to help boost the Palestinian economy. The political component of the administration’s peace plan—which Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is overseeing—has not yet been unveiled.

There are many reasons to be skeptical about the Trump administration’s proposed economic workshop in Bahrain. For one, laying out an economic plan ahead of a political vision is simply the wrong way around. As many analysts have pointed out, prospective donors and investors are unlikely to be forthcoming when they do not know what the endgame is or what it is they are being asked to invest in. Previous U.S. presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, also tried to promote “quality of life” for Palestinians without directly challenging the Israeli occupation. Moreover, the idea that so-called economic peace could be a substitute for a meaningful political horizon has simply never panned out.

By focusing on economics, the U.S. administration has fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem. As numerous United Nations, World Bank, and other reports have found, the greatest obstacles to Palestinian economic growth are restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and its ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip. In other words, what Palestinians lack is not funding but freedom. As the Palestinian American businessman Sam Bahour recently put it, reviving the Palestinian economy “doesn’t require a grand plan, nor does it require a grand workshop. It requires Israel getting its boot off at least the economic part of our neck.” In any event, with both the Palestinian Authority and representatives of the Palestinian private sector overwhelmingly refusing to attend the Bahrain workshop, there seems little point in convening a conference designed to help Palestinians that does not include any Palestinians.

But the biggest reason to doubt the feasibility of the administration’s plan is its own record. Since recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, overturning 70 years of U.S. policy and taking the hotly contested issue of Jerusalem off the table, the administration has closed the Palestinian mission in Washington and systematically eliminated virtually every form of U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, both inside and outside the occupied territories.

Since August 2018, the Trump administration has steadily phased out more than $200 million in economic aid projects for the West Bank and Gaza as well as eliminated its annual contribution, averaging around $200 million, to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which has provided health care, education, and other services to Palestinian refugees since 1949. On May 13, officials at the agency warned that more than 1 million Palestinians in Gaza could go hungry unless the international community raises some $60 million in the next month.

The proposition that an administration that has completely divested from anything that might benefit Palestinians and pursued policies that directly to harmed ordinary Palestinians is now going to spearhead the international effort to promote investment in Palestinians or work toward the betterment of Palestinian lives is nothing short of fraudulent. Indeed, while U.S. officials have always had a certain blind spot with regard to Palestinian needs and aspirations, never has a U.S. administration shown as much open hostility toward Palestinians and their well-being as the Trump administration.

A Trump-led peace process may not offer Palestinians much gain, but it can produce considerable pain.

Thus, while the Trump team cannot play the role of a peace broker, it can—and indeed is—playing the role of a spoiler. A Trump-led peace process may not offer Palestinians much gain, but it can produce considerable pain.

Complicating matters further is that this challenge comes at a historic low point in the Palestinian national movement. Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation and subsequent aid cuts also upended more than four decades of Palestine Liberation Organization strategy, which banked exclusively on a U.S.-led peace process to deliver an end to the Israeli occupation and an independent Palestinian state. Despite talk of returning to the U.N. and other international forums, in reality Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, has no Plan B.

At the same time, given the loss of international aid as well as Israel’s withholding of a portion of tax revenues since February, the talk now is of when, not if, the Palestinian Authority may collapse. Its potential demise should concern all of the parties with a stake in peace in the region: It would mean the end of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank, raising the specter of violence and instability. This could place the West Bank on par with Gaza, where the ongoing divisions between Fatah and Hamas for control of the territory and Israel’s 12-year-old blockade, along with Egypt’s enforced border closure, have ensured regular outbreaks of violence.

If Palestinians hope to weather the coming storm, their best hope is to close ranks. Only by ending the highly corrosive political division between Hamas and Fatah can Palestinians begin to break the suffocating siege on Gaza. That will also enable them to be seen as a credible interlocutor on the regional and international levels, and potentially begin the process of forging a new national strategy. While Palestinian reconciliation may not be enough to forestall any impending disaster, in the context of continued division such a disaster is all but assured. If nothing else, the Palestinians should brace themselves for likely retaliation by the Trump administration if—or, more likely, when—the Manama workshop proves to be a bust.

Khaled Elgindy is a nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution and the author of the newly released book, Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump (Brookings Institution Press, April 2019). Twitter: @elgindy_

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