Yesterday, the White House released the long awaited “Peace to Prosperity” plan, the economic aspects of its Israel-Palestinian peace deal. Most media are already portraying a tired and misleading narrative of “Israel versus Palestinians” as well as the essentially unrelated question of whether one supports or opposes President Trump. Yet the reality offers far greater potential to shape our world.
The plan consists of a 95-page document and $50 billion offer of detailed economic proposals in private-sector and infrastructure development, development of human capital, including education and the workforce, and professionalization of government economic standards to a level that can attract private international investment and World Bank lending.
But that’s not what’s shocking. It is the reaction of Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states that stands to fundamentally change the world.
Israeli Business Will Come to the Table
Although Israel’s government was not invited to the Bahrain conference, representatives of Israel’s private sector will be attending, including tech entrepreneur Marius Nacht (Check Point, aMoon Partners), Yitshak Kreiss, (Sheba Medical Center), and others. This indicates Israelis’ desire to engage in economic activity with Palestinians under the structure of this plan.
Israel has been burned on attempted peace deals in the past. The Oslo process that began in the 1990s led not to peace, but to a horrific slew of deadly Palestinian terror called the “Second Intifada.” Israel’s total disengagement from Gaza in 2005 resulted in three wars and tens of thousands of Palestinian rockets against Israelis communities. The result is that Israelis have generally turned more politically conservative with an emphasis on security.
Israelis, as a consensus opinion, support the goal of peace via a two-state solution, yet they are generally hesitant to take security risks to achieve it. For example, Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister for regional cooperation, said the U.S. proposal for a land link between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “irrelevant” as long as the Hamas terror group controls Gaza, as it would cause security risks to Israelis. On the other hand, Hanegbi also described the Palestinian rejection as “tragic,” reflecting the Israeli desire to explore the potential of the deal, despite the risks.
Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity
“The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” is a famous quote by Israeli diplomat Abba Eban in 1973 and a sentiment later echoed by President Bill Clilnton and American special advisor Dennis Ross as the Oslo peace talks began to collapse.
Indeed, Palestinians have rejected general or specific offers for statehood at least nine separate times in recent history. Furthermore, Palestinian official policy is that all of Israel is “occupied territory” and compromise of any kind is tantamount to treason.
During a public address on January 14, 2018, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood in front of a map of Israel and stated, “This is our country.” This view is reflected in Palestinian law, which provides the death penalty to anyone selling land to a Jew, as well as school textbooks, children’s television programming, and official government policy.
And then there’s the Martyr’s Fund: a $403 million per year fund to reward those who carry out acts of terrorism, such as the man who murdered American Army veteran Taylor Force in 2016. That led to America’s Taylor Force Act, a law designed to prevent American foreign aid from funding the murder of Americans.
The reaction to “Peace to Prosperity” was no different: Palestinian parliament speaker Nabih Berri said the Palestinian government will not engage in “bartering over its principles.” Chief religious justice and presidential advisor Mahmoud Habbash says Palestinians would “rather die” than accept a “humiliating” partnership with Israel and the United States.
It is imperative that the international community ask: what principles and to what humiliation does Palestinian leadership refer? The humiliation of an end to violence? The principle of attempting to conquer all of Israel? The policy of viewing compromise and coexistence as betrayal? The answers are not clear, and such clarity is fundamental to any progress on any type of peace plan.
Arab Support Is Highly Notable
Given how the Arab world’s traditional blanket support for the “Palestinian Cause,” this week’s reaction from Saudi Arabia is highly surprising. On Friday, a top-ranking Saudi official said, “History and Allah brought a real opportunity…the blood conflict had lasted too long. Us Saudis and all Gulf States plus Egypt and Jordan realize that the age of going to war with Israel is over.” He argued that the deal, “leads to full [Palestinian] statehood” and that “the whole Arab world could benefit from it,” and slammed Palestinian leadership as “irresponsible” for not even considering it.
Despite months of desperate urging by Palestinian leadership to boycott the conference, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco are all attending, and Bahrain is, of course, hosting. This departure from Palestinian demands is yet another political surprise.
Iran has objected to the conference and refused to attend, as has Lebanon, which in recent years has become effectively a client state of Iran.
Although the White House has not said so, it is possible that the American and Arab endgame is more subtle and long term than a mere economic incentive: this proposal could be a means to give ordinary Palestinian people a window into what is possible and maybe even to set up an internal push toward change in Palestinian leadership.
The Palestinian government is boycotting the Bahrain conference, yet Palestinian businessman Mohammed Arif Masad will attend as a private individual. In reaction, his extended family disowned him, stating that he “deviated from the national line and the morals, values and traditions of his family,” and calling him a “collaborator with Israel.” A “collaborator with Israel” is considered in Palestinian society to be a terrible legal and moral crime, the punishment for which is often death by torture.
Masad’s case is just one example that underscores how much courage ordinary Palestinians may be willing to muster in order to build a better future, even in the face of terrifying internal opposition. Could such courage be enough to topple existing leadership and install a more progressive, peace-oriented government? Could such a chain of events lead to actual peace and prosperity?
The answers are unclear, but an evolving desire for real peace by ordinary Palestinians and the Arab world, plus Israel’s continuing desire, are what is truly necessary to bring about historic change.
With Palestinian leadership increasingly isolated for their rejectionism, the face of the Middle East is already far different than the tired media narrative of “Israel versus Palestinians.” In truth, the conflict is closer to a story of Palestinians versus the Arab world, and, increasingly, even the story of a despotic Palestinian government versus its own oppressed people.
The Peace to Prosperity conference might not be a short-term “silver bullet” solution to a decades-old conflict, but a long-term catalyst for meaningful change.