Kerry proposes $4-billion economic plan to boost Palestinians

Peres tells Abbas PA ‘must’ restart negotiations and bring peace; says ‘War is not inevitable. Peace is inevitable’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (center), Israeli President Shimon Peres (left), and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Sunday May 26, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Jim Young)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (center), Israeli President Shimon Peres (left), and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Sunday May 26, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Jim Young)

DEAD SEA, Jordan — US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday unveiled a plan that he believes could grow the Palestinian economy by up to 50 percent in the next three years and could bring unprecedented wealth and stability that will spread across the entire region.

Without offering any details, Kerry spoke of a “groundbreaking plan to develop a healthy, sustainable, private-sector-led Palestinian economy that will transform the fortunes of a future Palestinian state, but also significantly transform the possibilities for Jordan and for Israel,” Kerry said.

“It is a plan that is bigger, bolder and more ambitious than anything proposed since Oslo more than 20 years ago now,” he said, and would prove to be “enormously powerful and different from anything we’ve ever seen before.”

The US top diplomat said the $4-billion economic plan, coordinated by former British prime minister Tony Blair, could also cut unemployment by almost two-thirds and raise average wages by 40 percent. However, Kerry stressed, the success of the plan depends on parallel progress on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry was speaking at the closing session of the World Economic Forum, which was dedicated to breaking the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In recent weeks, Secretary Kerry has engaged in intensive shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington in a bid to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Also speaking at the session, President Shimon Peres on Sunday directly addressed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, urging him to return to the negotiating table to help reach a breakthrough.

“President Abbas, you are our partner — and we are yours,” Peres said, in front of hundreds of delegates from across the globe, including many from Arab countries. “You share our hopes and efforts for peace, and we share yours.”

Calling Abbas “my dear friend,” Peres then deviated from his scripted speech and launched a heartfelt plea. “All these differences [between Israelis and Palestinians], they are deep, they are moving, they are important — to all of us,” he said, adding that they should be dealt with on the negotiating table. “Let’s sit together. You’d be surprised how much can be achieved in open, direct, and organized meetings.”

Israelis and the Palestinians have opposing narratives regarding the conflict, he said. “But we have a joint point that all of us sit together and change it.”

In a much less conciliatory speech, Abbas, who had addressed the conference before Peres, called on the Israeli government to agree to the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines, with minor mutually agreed land swaps and East Jerusalem as its capital.

“The current situation is unbearable. Stagnation will eliminate the two-state solution,” Abbas said.

Abbas categorically rejected the idea of an interim agreement that would lead to a Palestinian state in temporary borders. “Let us put an end to illusion,” he said. “Please forget it, no one in the nationalist camp will accept this.”

He added: “We do not preach hate or discrimination against any religion.” He said Israeli soldiers who got lost in Palestinian territory were swiftly handed back. And he lamented Israel’s failure to release Palestinian security prisoners. Israel had only agreed to a mass prisoner release to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza, he recalled. “Do you want us to abduct other Shalits?” he asked. “This is not part of our culture. We cannot do this.”

He said the Arab Peace Initiative was “such a valuable” proposal, but 70 percent of Israelis hadn’t read it, he said. “You just withdraw [from the territories] and you get recognition from Indonesia to Mauritania.” He said he was baffled that Israel was not seizing this opportunity.

Both Peres and Abbas, who were scheduled to hold a diplomatic meeting in Jordan after the conference, hailed the Arab Peace Agreement as a positive offer and a possible framework for a future peace agreement. “The Arab Peace initiative is a meaningful change and a strategic opportunity. It replaces the strategies of war with the wisdom of peace,” Peres said.

Israelis and Palestinians “must return to negotiations as soon as possible and bring peace,” Peres said. The framework for any agreements is a two-state solution, with a “Jewish state” of Israel and an “Arab state — Palestine — living side by side in peace, dignity and freedom.”

“We can and should make the breakthrough,” Peres said. “We should not permit the hurdles to overcome us. History will judge us not by the process of negotiations, but by its outcome. Today’s obstacles will pale in the light of peace.”

Israelis and Palestinians “must depart from the skepticism that claims that war is inevitable,” Peres said. “War is not inevitable. Peace is inevitable.”

Peres said that Israel appreciates Kerry’s efforts, which bring an “impressive momentum and desire to contribute to the completion of the peace process,” he said. It will be matched with an imaginative economic plan.

Speaking at the same event, headlined “Breaking the impasse,” Kerry said the $4-billion economic plan he had laid out does not come instead of a political track.

“The economic approach is not a substitute for the political approach; the political approach is essential and it is our top priority,” Kerry said. “If this experiment is allowed to fail, what is going to replace it?” he said of the Palestinian Authority.

Kerry then addressed the naysayers who are skeptical about the prospects of a peace agreement, saying he was familiar with their arguments but that progress can only be achieved if talks are given a chance. “Cynicism has never built anything, certainly not a state,” he said. “We have no choice but to try again for peace, and to find it.”

Earlier on Sunday, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said his side would only agree to resume peace negotiations if Israel freezes settlement construction and declares that the pre-1967 lines would be the starting point for negotiations.

“We all agree with President Shimon Peres on the need for two states based on ’67,” Erekat said. “He should focus on convincing the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu,” to accept that framework.

The Americans, too, added Erekat, must push for Netanyahu to declare “publicly his acceptance of two states based on ’67.”

AP contributed to this report.

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