Israel has presented to senior members of the Trump administration a major, long-term economic proposal to employ a quarter of a million Palestinians in Israeli-run West Bank industrial zones, and to develop up to two dozen major West Bank Biblical tourism sites with a focus on Evangelical Christian visitors, Likud MK Nir Barkat, the former Jerusalem mayor who is behind the plan, told The Times of Israel.
Entitled “Developing Win-Win Economy in Judea and Samaria,” the presentation was set out by Barkat to US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner in the summer, at the direct request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It has also been seen by the outgoing Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt and the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, both of whom “like it,” Barkat said.
Barkat said he believed the proposal could serve as a blueprint for coexistence lasting centuries, and that he would not be surprised to see it included in the much-anticipated Trump administration Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
“We looked at this not through a political prism, but through the prism of what best works economically,” he added. Nonetheless, the plan aligns with a Netanyahu policy, firmly backed by Barkat, under which Israel will not relinquish overall security control anywhere in the West Bank, and will annex at least parts of Area C, the 60% of the West Bank where Israel maintains full civil and security authority and where all the Jewish settlements are.
“Jobs + Quality of Life = Peace + Security,” the presentation states. Barkat detailed the plan, and provided The Times of Israel with a copy of the presentation, during an interview last week.
Speaking first about the industrial zone element, he said the aim was to raise the number of Palestinians working “jointly with Israelis” in West Bank Area C from the current 26,000 to 250,000. Research carried out in partnership with Harvard academic Prof. Michael Porter — with whom Barkat previously worked to develop Jerusalem’s technology and tourism sectors — showed immense economic potential for Israel and the Palestinians when combining Israeli “technology, entrepreneurship, management and capital” with Palestinian labor, he said.
“Israeli GDP is $43,000,” he noted. “Seventy thousand Palestinians who cross the fence [to work in Israel] every day get almost $16,000. Twenty-six thousand Palestinians working in Area C of Judea and Samaria get $11,000. In Areas A and B they get $7,000. And in Gaza, $4,000.” His proposal, he said, shows “that the more they cooperate with the Jewish state, the better off they are. And our goal is to move 250,000 to work in Area C, and dramatically improve their wages.”
To that end, “we created a map of a dozen new industrial zones,” all close to the security fence, some of which have already been approved, said Barkat. “It’s all based on Israeli state-owned land. It makes a lot of sense. You get this flow of goods and labor; easy access for Palestinians and Israelis; we want to make an effective road system. We can also put medical and special services in these safe zones that both Israelis and Palestinians can enjoy.”
Turning to the proposal’s tourism element, Barkat said “the goal is to prepare an array of almost two dozen Bible tourism sites based on real Bible stories. We want to market it to all the Evangelicals in the world — to come to the Holy Land; come and see Jerusalem and all the holy sites. This is the land of the Bible and if you don’t see these Bible stories it’s as if you’ve not been to the Holy Land.”
He said the inspiration for this was the archaeological park at the Shiloh settlement, which draws 60,000 Evangelical Christians per year. “There are 800 million Evangelicals in the world,” he noted.
Barkat said he presented the proposal to Kushner a week before the US president’s adviser and son-in-law flew to the economic workshop he had organized in Bahrain in late June.
“I said to him, You know, Jared, the plan that you’re proposing will not be accepted by the Palestinians, and therefore you’ll not be able to initiate it,” Barkat recalled. “And if you do initiate it, we’re fine with it, but you’re going to get a low return on the investment. We’re fine with that.
“But let me show you this plan. [I showed him the plan.] I said, ‘You know what we need from this plan — from America and the rest of the world? Zero. Nothing. Zero dependency on the Palestinian Authority.’ And we’ll be able to execute it, with far more bang for the buck, than anything you could do on the Palestinian Authority side.”
Expressing the hope that the US would indeed present its overall Israeli-Palestinian plan, Barkat predicted it would “probably be the most aligned with Likud’s thinking of any American presidency ever.”
He added: “It’s a precedent when an American president puts a plan on the table. I don’t know what’s in it, but I can anticipate that it’s going to be far more aligned than [anything put out by former president Barack] Obama and American presidents before…. I think they now understand the Middle East — my sense, given the meetings I had with the American administration, is they understand the challenges quite well.”
In the course of the wide-ranging interview, Barkat also said he believed that Israel could avoid its third election in less than a year if Benny Gantz’s Blue and White “come to their senses” and negotiate a unity government with Likud in which Netanyahu serves first as prime minister.
If Blue and White sought, by contrast, to build a minority government supported by Arab MKs, “it would be the biggest mistake they ever made,” said Barkat. Such a coalition would not be viable for long, Blue and White would hemorrhage support in the subsequent elections, and Likud would go into opposition in the interim, with “heads held high.”
Barkat castigated Avigdor Liberman for “competing with Yair Lapid in hatred of the ultra-Orthodox parties,” and said the issue of ultra-Orthodox service in the IDF was eminently solvable — by encouraging, rather than requiring, more young ultra-Orthodox males to serve.
He endorsed Netanyahu’s claim that the graft allegations the prime minister is battling are part of a witch hunt. The state prosecution was “not corrupt,” he said, But “they have their own independent opinions. They have little if any governance over them, to see if they’re working well and what happens when they make mistakes.” The system, he charged, is “tilted,” with “lots of injustices” in the legal process.”
He said Netanyahu is “the best prime minister we have,” and that Gantz, though he was a good general, currently “lacks the economic skills and the international perspective” to serve as prime minister, and is “low on the learning curve” of politics. “And I don’t want him to shave on Israel’s skin.”
Barkat said he saw himself as a potential prime minister “in due time” — to succeed, rather than replace, Netanyahu. Asked whether Netanyahu sees him as a possible successor, Barkat said, “I haven’t asked him. It’s not relevant. The public will decide, at the right time.”
Barkat, 60, a former high-tech entrepreneur ranked by Forbes as Israel’s wealthiest politician, served as Jerusalem mayor from 2008 to 2018. He joined Likud in 2015, and won a Knesset seat in April.
He was interviewed at his home in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood on November 11. The conversation was in English, and the transcript that follows has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
The Times of Israel: Do you think that a third election is inevitable?
Nir Barkat: My wish and hope is that eventually, after the 28 days of Gantz not succeeding to form a unity government, they’ll come to their senses and eventually sit down with Netanyahu and compromise, and propose a wide unity government. Rather than boycotting, they should negotiate the right terms to sit together in a wide government. Israel needs a wide government.
So you think that in the last 21 days, maybe they’ll get together?
Yes. And if they have a minority government within the next few days, before the 28 days are over, then long term, even short term, that will harm Blue and White and harm Liberman, and elections will follow relatively soon. If that means we [in the Netanyahu-led bloc] are going to the opposition [in the interim], we will go there with our heads held high.
You don’t think part of Likud would or should say, we need to prevent a minority government with Arab support? And that if Netanyahu doesn’t want to be part of this partnership with Gantz, some of us should anyway?
The threat by Blue and White to go to a minority government supported by the Arabs is not a real threat. And if they want to do it, they’re going to find themselves shrinking in the next Knesset.
And it won’t divide Likud? It would strengthen Likud?
Yes. It will strengthen us in the opposition.
How would they pass a budget with the Arabs, increasing the security budget? Do you see the Arabs raising their hands and increasing the security budget of Israel? That would be really interesting to see. I think it would be very problematic for Blue and White if they decide to not join with the national Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, and prefer the Arabs in the coalition. That would be a day to remember.
They’d pay a heavy price for that. It would be the biggest mistake they ever made.
If they do not go that route, then they must understand that they come to the table with Netanyahu and with the 55 members on our side. Things should be 50/50. We should focus on things in the unity government that have wide acceptance. No boycotts, and Netanyahu to serve first as prime minister. That’s the classic interpretation of what the president suggested.
If a leader fails to win two elections in a row, his or her party would normally be likely to say, You’ve been a fantastic prime minister but maybe it’s time to go. Why is Likud so staunchly behind Netanyahu when he’s failed to win two elections outright?
The majority of Likudniks — and not only Likud; the whole right faction of the Israeli parliament — feel that there’s a witch hunt against Netanyahu, and not just against Netanyahu. We all feel that it is a tilted system. The way the system is going after Netanyahu is something that, if we agree to it, would be a big, strategic mistake. The legal structure, the process that is happening, we feel that there’s lots of injustice in it.
I remember when I was mayor [of Jerusalem], the city’s legal counsel [Yossi Havilio] wanted to dictate so many things that have nothing to do with the legal system, including [the eviction of Jews from Silwan’s] Beit Yonatan. He decided, with his sort of theoretical, independent legal system, to replace the mayor of Jerusalem. I eventually decided to remove him from office.
Once he was replaced, everything came to order. So my personal experience is that sometimes the legal system takes control in many, many cases. That doesn’t happen in other countries.
Are you saying that the Israeli state prosecution is corrupt?
Not corrupt. They have their own independent opinions. They have little if any governance over them, to see if they’re working well and what happens when they make mistakes.
It’s not just the legal system. It’s also that the press and everyone else is going after Netanyahu in a big, aggressive campaign. The majority of Likudniks, and not just Likudniks, feel that this is unjust and that between the legal system and national government system there are imbalances, and those imbalances are taking little things that otherwise may not even pass the bar, to oust Netanyahu. We feel it’s very unjust.
You will support Netanyahu for as long as he wants to be prime minister? Or you think even Netanyahu should not be allowed to go on forever?
He’s the best prime minister we have. He’s supported, first, because he’s the best person to continue doing the role. He’s done a good job. And second, within Likud it’s just not done [to oust a leader]. It’s not about legality, it’s about ethics and things you don’t do. It’s a big advantage that we don’t kick out our party’s leader every other day. Look at the other parties that replace their leaders very often. That’s a big problem.
So, who is the right person to continue leading the country? Definitely Netanyahu. I don’t think that Benny Gantz and Blue and White have anything comparable to Netanyahu.
You don’t think Benny Gantz is capable of being prime minister?
No, I don’t think so. He’s a good man. I served with him in the army. He’s a good general. However, to manage a country like Israel, you need additional skills that he does not have.
He lacks the economic skills and the international perspective. When you look at basic political instincts, and learning how politics works, he’s low on the learning curve. And I don’t want him to shave on Israel’s skin.
Look at the first thing he did after the army. Unfortunately, he bankrupted the company he managed. I feel uncomfortable trusting him at this point in time, as do many other Israelis. If and when there is a unity government, and he becomes part of it — initially under Netanyahu — then I may tell you if I believe he can be seen as [a prime minister].
You mean, if there is a rotation agreement, then by the time he gets to be prime minister…?
Yes. He needs to learn.
But you think you could be prime minister?
Yes, in due time. Right now, I support Netanyahu.
So you would like to succeed but not replace Netanyahu?
And does Netanyahu look at you as somebody to whom he might be happy to hand over at some time?
I haven’t asked him. It’s not relevant. The public will decide, at the right time.
Why is it that Netanyahu and Likud did not do better in September? In April, when people voted for Avigdor Liberman, they thought they were voting for someone who would be part of a Netanyahu coalition. But in the second election, people knew that Liberman’s party was not a reliable right-wing party. And still the right wing didn’t win enough seats. The right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc only got to 55.
There were two successful campaigns that — unfortunately, I say, as somebody from the Likud — I saw working on the Israeli public. The first was the anti-Netanyahu campaign, and the second was the anti-Haredi campaign.
Liberman decided to take on a new initiative; he never did in the past: He is actually competing with Yair Lapid in hatred of the ultra-Orthodox parties. The combined two campaigns were successful. And I feel both of them are unjust.
I assume Liberman did some polling and saw that he could boost his support with the Israeli public by being anti-Haredi. It’s the wrong thing to do. As somebody who seeks cooperation, who seeks ways to live together between different sectors — right and left, secular and ultra-Orthodox, Jews and non-Jews — I think it’s a big mistake. It’s very easy to gain support for an extreme opinion, an extreme ideology. However, when you practically seek to live together, and focus on a unity government, then you must think of how to compromise.
In Jerusalem, as mayor, I saw the status quo [on religious matters] as a good symbol of what is the right thing to do. The status quo means when ideologies will never match, and never meet, you make social compromise. The status quo which I mastered in the city of Jerusalem is about compromise for the benefit of living together — for people who will never agree on who’s right and who’s wrong.
The reality is that the army doesn’t need many more ultra-Orthodox
Taking such an extreme approach will get Liberman votes, and did get him votes. But it will never enable us to continue forward together as one people and as one nation.
Maybe the situation regarding the Haredim does need some adjustment. I don’t think the Army needs every young Haredi male; it could use some of them. But the grievance about Haredim not serving in the army is widely felt. We can’t fix Iran’s regime wanting our destruction. But we could institute national service programs for all young Israelis. Why have we not done that?
The issue of Haredim going into the army is a non-issue. In many ways, Liberman is deceiving the public in positioning it as though it is a big issue. And here’s why. I’ve asked chiefs of staff, really, seriously: How many ultra-Orthodox do you need in the army? On one hand, they want women to serve in all units. On the other hand, when you bring the ultra-Orthodox, you have separate bases. So how do you manage? Both things are important to the Israeli army. You want more ultra-Orthodox and you want more women. You have to handle this quite cautiously.
The reality is that the army doesn’t need many more ultra-Orthodox.
I had the Peleg Yerushalmi [ultra-Orthodox faction] in my municipal government. They’re the ones that are most aggressive against compulsory army service. So they sat here, and I said to their rabbis: If we don’t make IDF service for Haredim compulsory, but we market why this is important, and we give you the right incentives, do you understand that more ultra-Orthodox will come [to serve in the army] and do you have any problem with that? I said I thought double the number of ultra-Orthodox would agree to serve.
Their reply was: First, we will not have any problem with the Israeli government. In other words, if you market to them [rather than impose conscription], they will never demonstrate. And then they said that not double, but triple the number of Haredim will join the army.
If it’s not compulsory, but we encourage them to serve, they would be fine with that?
And that’s what you suggest doing?
I went back to Liberman when he was minister of defense, and I said, Hey Liberman, what is the issue? Do we need more [ultra-Orthodox in the army]? If so, here’s how to get more, okay? He didn’t come back to me.
I also believe we should dramatically expand national service in Israel. And I know how to do that. We can solve the problem.
I know practically how to cooperate with the ultra-Orthodox, to achieve a fairer sharing of the burden by expanding national service, without fighting, without twisting arms. Pushing will never work; pulling will always work. That’s the strategy we should pursue.
Before the last elections, Netanyahu talked about annexing the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area. Do you support that?
Very much so.
I’ve actually prepared an interesting new proposal on how to work in Judea and Samaria. I’ve shared it a few times with people, but nobody actually understands seriously what I’m talking about.
Today, the right of center people, we, the Likud, talk about two dimensions in Judea and Samaria. The first is civil separation: You [in the Palestinian Authority] manage your cities, we manage our towns. Nobody’s going anywhere. You’re staying; we’re staying. That’s fine. The second is full, 100 percent Israeli security [control]. This is the current situation.
What I’m adding to that is a huge shift in the joint economy. How do we create a win-win economy in Judea and Samaria that currently does not exist at the level I believe it can? Together with Professor Michael Porter from Harvard, we’ve analyzed what are the competitive advantages of Judea and Samaria. We looked at this not through a political prism, but through the prism of what best works economically. It turns out that there are two business clusters that I want to dramatically push.
By the way, I was asked by Porter to come this December 11 to lecture as a guest of honor at Harvard, to talk about the success stories of Jerusalem and the work we’ve done for the future. This is a big deal. I don’t know if anybody’s ever been asked to lecture in Harvard about the models. He’s very proud of the models we’ve developed here.
So how did we work? We go and interview the leading business people, to find the models that work best in the region, and why they are successful. In Jerusalem, the business customers we focused on were high tech — based on the Hebrew University’s very powerful computer and math and life sciences people — and tourism. Jerusalem is the fastest growing city in the world for tourism, and Jerusalem is the fastest growing high-tech hub in the world.
So, what do we find [works best] in Judea and Samaria? Technology-related industries that are also labor intensive. You got to the Barkan and Ariel and Mishor Adumim [industrial zones] and you find industries that have strong technology, and also have Arab labor. It is far, far better than anything done in the A and B areas of the [West Bank that are under the control of the] Palestinian Authority, because there are no Israelis in those other areas. We bring technology, entrepreneurship, management and capital, and what they bring to the table is relatively accessible cheap labor. These industries are far superior to anything done in the country, because of the cheap labor and the cheap land.
Currently, there are 26,000 Palestinians working in Area C. I want to have 10 times that number. And when you have over 250,000 Palestinians working jointly with Israelis, that’s a game changer.
The other business cluster is based on Shiloh. What is amazing to see in Shiloh is 60,000 Evangelical Christians visiting [the archaeological park at the settlement each year]. There are 800 million Evangelicals in the world. The goal is to prepare an array of almost two dozen Bible tourism sites based on real Bible stories. We want to market it to all the Evangelicals in the world — to come to the Holy Land; come and see Jerusalem and all the holy sites. This is the land of the Bible and if you don’t see these Bible stories it’s as if you’ve not been to the Holy Land.
We’re now finishing the market research. We’ve got ideas of how to do that very nicely.
A dozen to two dozen biblical tourism sites in the West Bank?
Yes, with Shiloh as the inspiration. This is something that we’re now in the process of preparing.
I asked you about annexation. You’re talking about really integrating Judea and Samaria…
I’m answering your question with a much bigger vision. Derived from that big vision is very clear way of how to live together in Judea and Samaria.
And we’re never going to separate from these millions of Palestinians?
The separation is civil. Side by side with the civil separation, we’re talking about joint economic work.
Let me show you. This is the map.
When I showed this plan — I worked with Porter on this — to Netanyahu, he said, I want Jared Kushner to see this. So a week before Bahrain, I went to the White House, and I showed the presentation I’m showing you now to Jared Kushner. And basically I said, ‘How do we create a win-win economy in Judea and Samaria?’
And this is based on the research we’ve done with Porter.
Right now the current status quo is civil separation, and Israeli security, and the game changer is creating a joint economy in industrial zones in Area C and tourism through Bible stories.
Look at this interesting graph: Israeli GDP is $43,000. Seventy thousand Palestinians who cross the fence [to work in Israel] every day get almost $16,000. Twenty-six thousand Palestinians working in Area C of Judea and Samaria get $11,000. In Areas A and B they get $7,000. And in Gaza, $4,000.
What I showed here is that the more they cooperate with the Jewish state, the better off they are. And our goal is to move 250,000 to work in Area C, and dramatically improve their wages.
We created a map of a dozen new industrial zones. Let me show you the map. The zones are all close to the security fence. Some of them are new, marked in red. Some have already been approved. Some are in the process, but not yet approved.
And they’re all as close as possible to the fence, because, in Areas C, we bring entrepreneurship and capital. It’s all based on Israeli state-owned land. It makes a lot of sense. You get this flow of goods and labor; easy access for Palestinians and Israelis; we want to make an effective road system. We can also put medical and special services in these safe zones that both Israelis and Palestinians can enjoy.
And then we talked about the land of the Bible [element of the vision].
We have a map of the sites; we’ve now expanded them to 20. And each one of them is a story from the Bible, the location, and all of them are in Israeli state-owned land, and Shiloh is the inspiration.
So don’t be surprised that you’re going to see this…
Become government policy?
Part of the American plan.
I sat for 45 minutes with Jared. He doesn’t usually sit with anybody but the prime minister. We have a prior friendship from before Trump became president. They’ve hosted me at their home.
It was a week before the Bahrain [economic workshop in late June], and I said to him, You know Jared, the plan that you’re proposing will not be accepted by the Palestinians, and therefore you’ll not be able to initiate it. And if you do initiate it, we’re fine with it, but you’re going to get a low return on the investment. We’re fine with that. But let me show you this plan. (I showed him the plan.) I said, You know what we need from this plan — from America and the rest of the world? Zero. Nothing. Zero dependency on the Palestinian Authority. And we’ll be able to execute it, with far more bang for the buck, than anything you could do on the Palestinian Authority side.
And I think they like it very much. The departing US special envoy Jason [Greenblatt] told me they like it. [Ambassador to Israel] David Friedman told me they like it.
Once you understand that vision, I believe this is something that can coexist for decades and hundreds of years. You live your life the way you want, we live our lives the way we want. We will concentrate in the blocs. However, work together in safe zones, where both Israelis and Arabs can work together in industry, and naturally in tourism. There are big employment opportunities in tourism as well.
Israelis living in Judea and Samaria must have the same quality of life as all Israelis, under Israeli law and Israeli governance.
How does the legal status of the territory, of Areas A, B and C, fit into this vision?
There could be little adjustments. When they made the A, B, and C maps, they didn’t have the context of how are we going to live together. But generally you stick to the current A, B and C, with maybe minor adjustments.
How does that sit with supporting annexation in the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea?
In Area C, it makes sense.
You would annex all of Area C, or parts of Area C?
Open for discussion.
But you would support the annexation of the Jordan Valley?
And other areas you’d think about…?
No, I would, at a minimum, annex all of the settlements. And the access routes to them. And probably the maximum would be annexing all of Area C. This is something that has to be negotiated.
And then we’re intertwined with the Palestinians, because there’s no alternative anyway?
And they would have less than statehood, because it’s too risky for us?
Regarding statehood by the way, I hear people argue about what statehood means. When you will never allow them to have an army, then by definition it’s not statehood. Right?
It’s not full statehood.
So that’s the case. They will not have a full state. Mainly, no army.
No capacity to threaten us militarily?
Yes. Unfortunately, we know they can flip on us.
And Israel maintaining overall security control everywhere in the West Bank?
The Arab vote in September was much higher than in April. It’s a young population. If their turnout continues to rise, it remakes the political map — in the Knesset, and potentially, if something similar happens, in Jerusalem. Is that a game changer?
I don’t think so. I don’t have a problem with the fact that people vote. The challenge is what do they represent. Of course I have no problem with the Arabs themselves, with the majority of the Arab population. We have to take care of them. I personally, and actually the Likud government, put a lot of capital into East Jerusalem, because it’s the right thing to do.
We have to give them all the services regardless of how they vote and if they vote and what they vote. That commitment to serve the Arab residents of Israel is a full commitment.
How many of Jerusalem’s 900,000 population are Arabs?
Almost none of whom vote in local elections?
They vote in small percentages, about 10%.
So if they did vote, it would remake the running of the city.
I have no problem with that. We will know how to make the right coalitions.
Do you like the cable car, by the way?
Of course. I was one of the planners. It’s not a cable car, it’s a network of cable cars. Six lines we’ve prepared. We’re now launching the first, but it’s one of six.
It’s a precedent when an American president puts a plan on the table. I don’t know what’s in it, but I can anticipate that it’s going to be far more aligned than [anything put out by former president Barack] Obama and American presidents before
You think the Trump administration will present its plan at some point?
I hope so. Their plan will probably be the most aligned with the Likud’s thinking of any American presidency ever.
It’s a precedent when an American president puts a plan on the table. I don’t know what’s in it, but I can anticipate that it’s going to be far more aligned than [anything put out by former president Barack] Obama and American presidents before.
So you would hope that they would publish this plan?
Yes, I hope so. And I think they now understand the Middle East — my sense, given the meetings I had with the American administration, is they understand the challenges quite well.
You hope Trump runs again? You hope Trump wins again? You think that would be good for Israel?
I don’t know who he runs against, but he’s a good friend of Israel. And so if he runs, we don’t know which Democrat will run against him. But he’s definitely a good friend of Israel and we would like to see him succeed.