View from Europe: Washington’s Illusory Plan for Israel-Palestine

The United States is set to propose an economic plan for Israel-Palestine, spearheaded by Jared Kushner, on 25 and 26 June in Bahrain, where Gulf Arab states will discuss the troubled Palestinian economy.

Posted on 06/8/19
By Hugh Lovatt | Via ECFR
A close-up of the fish collected at the port in Gaza. (UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan, CC license)

It seems that Jared Kushner, one of the principal architects of the so-called “deal of the century” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has finally discovered the European Union. In his role as a senior adviser on the Middle East to US President Donald Trump, Kushner has recently faced a series of setbacks – among them the recalcitrance of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israeli politics’ descent into almost unprecedented political chaos. In response to these problems, Kushner made what looked to be a hastily arranged trip to Brussels on 4 June, meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The timing of his visit, which came the day before all EU member states’ Middle East and North Africa directors met to discuss Israel-Palestine, may be a coincidence. It is safe to assume that Kushner attempted to pre-emptively dampen European opposition to the US plan – which is yet to see the light of day – and, in the short term, enlist support for a US-led economic workshop on investment in the Palestinian economy, scheduled to be held in Bahrain at the end of the month.

A personal visit to Brussels by the US president’s son-in-law may well be flattering (even if it comes belatedly, two years into the development of his plan for Israel-Palestine). And Kushner’s talking points may seem relatively unobjectionable: why, after all, should Europe reject any attempt to solve, or at least contain, the conflict? And, surely, ramping up investment in Palestine is important to achieving this. But it is now clear that the US government is selling, at best, an illusion.

Can the US plan bring peace?

The collapse of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s talks on forming a new government, and the prospect of another round of Israeli elections in September, will further delay the US in unveiling the political vision that underpins its peace plan. However, comments from US officials and the effects of current US policy already indicate that this vision is out of synch with the two-state solution the EU favors.

As the US government has admitted, economic investment in Palestine will be ineffective without a political solution to the conflict. Given their lack of information on the US vision, Europeans whom the White House invites to the economic workshop are effectively being asked to invest in a project that has no clearly defined end goal. This initiative could even entrench a one-state reality of unequal rights for Palestinians under indefinite occupation, a situation that will increasingly resemble apartheid.

Faced with opposition from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the US seems to be hoping that a generous economic package will tempt Palestinians to abandon their national political demands, making them more amenable to a bankruptcy-style deal with Israel. Nothing in the history of the conflict indicates that this approach will work.

For example, in 1986, the Regan administration attempted to convince Saudi Arabia to fund development projects in the West Bank to support what they called “moderate” Palestinian groups. This became known as the “Quality of Life Initiative”, which was designed to restore Palestinians’ faith in the stalled political process.

Put more simply: if the US sincerely wants to improve the Palestinian economy, it should focus on lifting Israeli restrictions.
Yet, as political scientist Seth Anziska explains in Preventing Palestine, this approach was premised on the “exclusion and marginalization of the Palestinian national movement … [At the time,] the administration’s disengagement from comprehensive peace initiatives … was framed as a logical step away from diplomacy that had not yielded tangible results”. Ultimately, this approach was not an effective substitute for political negotiations. It also failed due to Jordanian disengagement from the process and the United States’ refusal to negotiate directly with the PLO.

Can investment stabilize the occupied Palestinian territories?

Lacking a viable political plan, some European governments may like the idea of managing the current status quo and avoiding flare-ups in violence with economic measures: in effect, providing investment to avert unilateral Palestinian steps – such as the abandonment of the Oslo framework – or a complete breakdown of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Putting its structural flaws aside, this approach is incompatible with current Palestinian political dynamics. Far from stabilizing the occupied Palestinian territories, any attempt to bypass their leadership would create a political backlash, driving the PA and the PLO towards the more drastic measures that they have long threatened to implement.

The US administration seems to have misread these political dynamics. The PLO and the PA, as well as the Palestinian business community, have rejected the US economic plan. Hamas is, of course, unlikely to be a direct recipient of foreign assistance or to engage with the US (even with the group’s partial rapprochement with Israel, and with Washington’s interest in investing in Gaza). Moreover, 79 percent of Palestinians believe that their leadership should reject the Trump administration’s plan.

Given these obstacles, the White House may have designed the Bahrain workshop to punish the PA and the PLO for their refusal to go along with its plans. In this regard, the initiative appears to be an attempt to isolate and sideline the Palestinian leadership (and the broader liberation movement) on the international stage, while simultaneously showing the Palestinian public what could have been if not for what the Trump administration views as the stubbornness of their leaders.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have strengthened their relationships with Israel in recent years, largely thanks to their shared animosity towards Iran.
As past failures and frustrations show, even when the PLO and the PA favor economic development, Israel’s occupation of, and restrictions on, Palestinian territories have impeded progress towards peace. In the past two decades, foreign powers’ unwillingness to challenge Israeli restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza has fostered decline and a heavy dependence on aid in the Palestinian economy. Similarly, the 2004-2005 World Bank plan for Gaza that US economist James Wolfensohn championed ran aground due to Israel’s unwillingness to lift its restrictions there or to implement the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. Put more simply: if the US sincerely wants to improve the Palestinian economy, it should focus on lifting Israeli restrictions.

Is the support of Gulf Arab states significant?

Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have nominally endorsed the US economic track. Yet such support has more to do with their management of relations with the US and Israel than with the Palestinians.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have strengthened their relationships with Israel in recent years, largely thanks to their shared animosity towards Iran. These Gulf Arab states are keen to ensure that the Trump administration remains a willing participant in their efforts to contain, and then steadily roll back, Iran’s regional influence. Sustaining this alignment depends, in part, on the perception that they still believe in the Palestinian cause.

Given its desire to stay away from the regional battle lines that run between Iran and most Gulf Arab states, Qatar undoubtedly hopes that playing along with Washington’s plan will earn it US support in facing down Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi sanctions. Qatari involvement in the workshop may also be a small step towards mending divisions within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman and Kuwait will – if they participate in the workshop – follow a similar logic, as they are keen to reaffirm US support for their independent political and economic roles, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to undermine.

Should European governments engage with the US plan?

European governments are likely interested in attending the workshop in Bahrain out of a desire to either show support for their US and Gulf allies or find something positive and tangible in the US initiative to engage on. At the same time, they will need to balance these motives with the damage participation in the workshop may cause to what is left of plans for a two-state solution and the authority of the Palestinian leadership, as well as the Palestinian backlash it could create.

European governments are likely aware that, when they have attended other such gatherings (such as the March 2018 White House brainstorming session on Gaza and February 2019 Warsaw conference), they have been primarily treated as subordinates who are there to be briefed and instructed rather than listened to. There is no reason to believe the Bahrain workshop will be any different.

It appears that, for the White House, Europe’s only acceptable role in Israel-Palestine is that of a funder. In essence, the US is asking European countries to invest in a flawed economic plan that they have had no control over, and whose ultimate end goal remains unclear. All of this would run against the Palestinians’ wishes. Without clarity on the plan’s political goal, and without Palestinian support for it, how can Europe support the US initiative in good faith?

This article first appeared in ECFR. Click here to go to the original.

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