WASHINGTON—The White House on Saturday outlined a $50 billion Middle East economic plan that would create a global investment fund to lift the Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies, and fund a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.
The “peace to prosperity” plan, set to be presented by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner at an international conference in Bahrain next week, includes 179 infrastructure and business projects, according to details of the plan and interviews with U.S. officials.
It is being proposed as an approach toward reviving the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, although the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the armed Islamist group Hamas continued their criticism of the plan on Saturday. Israel and some Palestinian business leaders have shown a lot of interest in the effort, a senior Trump administration official has said.
[epoch_social_embed] Generations of Palestinians have lived under adversity and loss, but the next chapter can be defined by freedom and dignity. Today, we’re unveiling Peace to Prosperity: the most ambitious international effort for the Palestinian people to date. https://t.co/q1pX9yJJzE — The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 22, 2019
The ambitious economic revival plan, the product of two years of work by Kushner and other aides, would take place only if a political solution to the region’s long-running problems is reached.
More than half of the $50 billion would be spent in the economically troubled Palestinian territories over 10 years, while the rest would be split between Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Some of the projects would be in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where investments could benefit Palestinians living in adjacent Gaza, a crowded and impoverished coastal enclave.
The plan also proposes nearly a billion dollars to build up the Palestinians’ tourism sector if the peace plan is successful in what has been a turbulent region with frequent flareups between Israeli forces and militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The Trump administration hopes that wealthy Gulf states and nations in Europe and Asia, along with private investors, would foot much of the bill, Kushner told Reuters.
“The whole notion here is that we want people to agree on the plan and then we’ll have a discussion with people to see who is interested in potentially doing what,” Kushner told Reuters Television.
With a proposal to invest about $50 billion in the Middle East, Jared Kushner tells @ Reuters that if the 10-year plan is implemented correctly, it will reduce poverty and unemployment rates significantly https://t.co/VZeVNrVdl9 pic.twitter.com/J9GkTBPl6x
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 22, 2019
The unveiling of the economic blueprint follows two years of deliberations and delays in rolling out a broader peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians, who are boycotting the event, have refused to talk to the Trump administration since it recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in late 2017.
Veteran PLO negotiator Hanan Ashrawi dismissed the proposals on Saturday, saying: “These are all intentions, these are all abstract promises” and said only a political solution would solve the conflict.
Kushner made clear in two interviews with Reuters that he sees his detailed formula as a game-changer, despite the view of many Middle East experts that he has little chance of success where decades of U.S.-backed peace efforts have failed.
“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘Deal of the Century,'” Kushner said of Palestinian political leaders who have dismissed his plan as an attempt to buy off their aspirations for statehood. “This is going to be the ‘Opportunity of the Century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”
Kushner said some Palestinian business executives have confirmed their participation in the conference, but he declined to identify them. Businessmen in the West Bank city of Ramallah told Reuters that they would not be attending.
Several Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, will also participate in the June 25-26 gathering in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, for Kushner’s rollout of the first phase of Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
The White House said it decided against inviting the Israeli government because the Palestinian Authority would not be there.
Political Disputes Remain
There are strong doubts whether potential donor governments would be willing to open their checkbooks anytime soon, as long as the thorny political disputes at the heart of the decades-old Palestinian conflict remain unresolved.
Kushner’s attempt to decide economic priorities first while initially sidestepping politics ignores the realities of the conflict, say many experts.
“This is completely out of sequence because the Israeli-Palestinian issue is primarily driven by historical wounds and overlapping claims to land and sacred space,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.
Kushner acknowledges that “you can’t push the economic plan forward without resolving the political issues as well.” The administration, he said, will “address that at a later time,” referring to the second stage of the peace plan’s rollout, the Manama, now expected no earlier than November.
Kushner says his approach is aimed at laying out economic incentives to show the Palestinians the potential for a prosperous future if they return to the table to negotiate a peace deal.
Kushner stressed that governments would not be expected to make financial pledges on the spot.
“It is a small victory that they are all showing up to listen and partake. In the old days, the Palestinian leaders would have spoken and nobody would have disobeyed,” he said.
Kushner’s proposed new investment fund for the Palestinians and neighboring states would be administered by a “multilateral development bank.” Global financial lenders including the U.N. International Monetary Fund and World Bank plan to be present at the meeting.
The fund would include “accountability, transparency, anti-corruption, and conditionality safeguards” to protect investments.
A signature project would be to construct a travel corridor for Palestinian use that would cross Israel to link the West Bank and Gaza. It could include a highway and possibly a rail line. The narrowest distance between the territories, whose populations have long been divided by Israeli travel restrictions, is about 25 miles (40 kilometers).
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
Kushner said that if executed the plan would create a million jobs in the West Bank and Gaza, reduce Palestinian poverty by half and double the Palestinians’ GDP.
Kushner sees his economic approach as resembling the Marshall Plan, which Washington introduced in 1948 to rebuild Western Europe from the devastation of World War Two. Unlike the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan, however, the latest initiative would be championed by regional investment.
President Donald Trump would “consider making a big investment in it” if there is a good governance mechanism, Kushner said. But he was non-committal about how much the president might contribute.
Economic programs have been tried before in the long line of U.S.-led peace efforts, only to fail for lack of political progress. Kushner’s approach, however, may be the most detailed so far, presented in two pamphlets of 40 and 96 pages each that are filled with financial tables and economic projections.
What Kushner hopes is that the Saudis and other Gulf delegates will like what they hear enough to urge Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to consider the plan.
The message Kushner wants them to take to Ramallah: “We’d like to see you go to the table and negotiate and try to make a deal to better the lives of the Palestinian people.”
Currently, the economic documents show no development projects in predominantly Arab east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland