US economic plan avoids saying much, but does hint at future Israeli concessions

Long-awaited document is rich in incentives and lofty verbiage, includes implied criticisms of Israel, but offers no detail on how the White House sees a peace plan coming together

Raphael Ahren

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

Palestinians protest against US President Donald Trump's so-called Deal of the Century, in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 22, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinians protest against US President Donald Trump's so-called Deal of the Century, in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 22, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The US administration’s economic plan to improve the Palestinian economy — the first part of a two-pronged peace plan — is rich in impressive sounding buzz phrases that are quite good at saying nothing specific: empowering people, unlocking potential, enhancing governance, capacity building programs, and institutionalized pro-growth policy framework.

The 40-page document released on Saturday, which promises $50 billion in investments to boost the Palestinian economy — after the successful conclusion of peace talks with Israel — is the first tangible product of the Trump administration’s peace efforts, after over two years of meetings, promises and delays.

Unfortunately, anyone who wants to know how the White House envisages a peace agreement will find the document deeply frustrating.

But with enough squinting, the Palestinians, who have been continually frustrated with the Trump administration’s policies, may actually find some rare succor: The document does feature implied criticism of Israel and recommendations that may hint at substantial concessions from Jerusalem.

The Peace to Prosperity plan, focusing on three “distinct pillars of the Palestinian society: the economy, the people, and the government” and more than $50 billion in international investments over a decade, has the potential to “open a new chapter in Palestinian history — one defined, not by adversity and loss, but by freedom and dignity,” the plan’s foreword states.

Officials in Ramallah on Saturday were quick to reject the plan, arguing that the Palestinian economy will only thrive once the Israeli occupation is ended. As Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador in London, put it: “ABC economics is that no monetary value can predicate or substitute economic sovereignty which is the first requirement for prosperity.”

But as US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who leads the administration’s effort to broker Middle East peace, has said all along, the first, economic part of the so-called deal of the century is designed to avoid getting tangled in the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The plan notably steers clear of terms such as Palestine, statehood, two-state solution, Jewish state, settlements, occupation or annexation. It mentions Israel only six times, and only in the context of countries neighboring the “West Bank and Gaza”; the text avoids using the term “the Palestinian territories” and also does not mention Areas A, B, and C in which the West Bank is currently divided, in accordance with the Oslo Accords.

The second part of the plan, which will deal with the conflict’s core issues such as borders and security, is supposed to be revealed at a later stage (presumably toward the end of the year, after a new Israeli government has been formed).

US presidential adviser Jared Kushner meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on June 21, 2017 (PA press office)

Still, the Peace to Prosperity plan, the details of which will be discussed in great detail at the coming week’s economic workshop in Bahrain, does include some implicit criticism of Israel, and hints at policy recommendations that may not please everyone in Jerusalem.

For instance, Kushner’s plan supports “steps to improve Palestinian cooperation with Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, with the goal of reducing regulatory barriers to the movement of Palestinian goods and people.”

That could mean policies that necessitate the removal of Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza, and getting rid of roadblocks and other constraints on freedom of movement.

“The Palestinian people routinely encounter logistical challenges in the West Bank and Gaza, impeding travel, stagnating economic growth, reducing exports, and stunting foreign direct investment,” the document states.

According to Blue and White co-leader Yair Lapid, this part of the plan is a “direct message to the Israeli government that it will also have to make some serious concessions.” Lapid wrote on Facebook: “We need to make clear in advance that any concessions are conditional upon the freedom of action of the IDF in the West Bank remaining intact.”

To alleviate the restrictions impeding growth, Peace to Prosperity proposes not only the construction of additional roads across the West Bank and Gaza, but also a new “transportation corridor directly connecting the West Bank and Gaza through a major road and, potentially, a modern rail line.”

The White House economic peace proposal unveiled on its web site on Saturday June 22, 2019 (Screen capture)

This project will “reduce the complications of travel for Palestinians and remove impediments that delay or prevent goods from reaching end markets by directly connecting population centers and easing barriers to movement.”

The corridor connecting Gaza with the West Bank is one of the program’s most tangible major projects; another one is the planned construction and development of a “new flagship liberal arts and sciences university in the West Bank and Gaza” that would cost up to $500 million.

(A 96-page document providing more details about the plan’s various projects can be found here.)

Also offering implicit but robust criticism of Israel is the plan’s proposal to expand Palestinian farming. Currently, agriculture accounts for less than 10 percent of Palestinian employment, and this sector has not yet met its full potential “due to limited access of Palestinian farmers to land, water, and technology,” the document claims.

Without saying it in so many words, the Kushner plan appears to echo critics who accuse Israel of preventing Palestinian farmers from taking advantage of the already-scarce natural resource at their disposal.

To remedy this situation, Peace to Prosperity proposes an “improved business environment in the West Bank and Gaza and access to more land.”

The West and Gaza are home to many of the region’s most renowned artists and poets, and the Palestinians’ great cultural legacy should be celebrated and supported.

The plan also pledges support for emerging Palestinian startups facing “impediments to growth [due to] the resource constraints they face today.”

Interestingly for an administration that has slashed funding for the arts in the US, the plan encourages support for Palestinian artists.

The West Bank and Gaza are “home to many of the region’s most renowned artists and poets,” the text posits, stressing that the Palestinians’ “great cultural legacy should be celebrated and supported.”

The document also traffics in a bit of soft flattery, talking up the tourism potential of Palestinian cuisine.

But while there may be some parts in the document that Palestinians will find inoffensive, if not worthy of their time, some of them — and Israelis, too, for that matter — may have a hard time actually giving it a thorough, nuanced examination.

That’s because so far, the plan, and all its highfalutin vocabulary, is only available in English, and it’s unclear if and when the White House will publish Arabic or Hebrew versions.

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