The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s workshop for the Palestinian economy is set to be a dud

Palestinians cross the Qalandiya checkpoint, south of Ramallah, West Bank, on May 17. (David Vaaknin for The Washington Post)

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. He is a Palestine Pulse columnist for Al-Monitor.

The Trump administration’s upcoming Peace to Prosperity economic workshop, due to begin in the Bahraini capital Manama on Tuesday, already looks set to be a dud. The workshop is aimed at “unlocking economic development and investment in the West Bank, Gaza, and the region,” according to the subtitle on its program. In reality, it is shaping up to be an amateur refurbishing of Israel’s failed economic peace plan and little more than a photo opportunity.

Read this piece in Arabic.

It was clear from the start that the workshop was inadvisable. Palestinian leaders and business groups released statements declining to attend and objecting to the framing of the workshop. Israeli government officials are also not expected to attend. Of course, an event about the future of Gaza and the West Bank with no Palestinian or Israeli officials in attendance is like going to a wedding without the bride or groom. The Trump administration should have canceled or suspended the event — but, as has often been the case, decided to cast wisdom to the side and proceed.

As a result, after more than two years of secret preparations for an economic plan, the first phase of the U.S. vision for peace looks sloppy, unprofessional and altogether forgettable.

The details that have emerged of the workshop reflect poor planning and a failure to understand the regional context. The draft program for the workshop, which is being hosted by Bahrain in partnership with the United States, lists a cocktail reception as the first event — in a country where public consumption of alcohol is frowned upon. The entire program rarely mentions the Palestinian people, and when it does, it talks about the “Palestinian population” — an inherently political message.

More troubling than the naivete of the Trump team, however, is the fact that the workshop’s premise is nothing more than an attempt to rehash Benjamin Netanyahu’s failed economic peace ideas, which sought to use economic incentives to distract from the key political questions related to the rights of the Palestinian people.

The Trump administration’s economic plan, which was unveiled on Saturday ahead of the workshop, reportedly has a $50 billion price tag. Yet there is a far better way to boost the Palestinian economy and open up the gateway for peace talks.

A World Bank report indicated that what is holding back the prosperity of Palestinians the most is not the absence of investment but Israeli restrictions on Palestinians — in particular, the inability to move people and goods freely and with ease.

As part of the peace process that was enshrined in Washington in 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed on a declaration of principles that included safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. This has not been maintained. Opening the passage would invigorate the Palestinian economy and, more importantly, give people hope.

Moreover, Palestinians have not been able to economically harness “Area C,” which constitutes more than 60 percent of the West Bank and of which Israel maintains control. As part of the Oslo accords, Palestinians had agreed to that for a five-year transitional period, which should have ended by the turn of the century. But that period has turned into about 25 years, with no end in sight.

Basic infrastructure such as an airport or a sea port are also not allowed by Israel. Israel has prevented Palestinians from digging for oil in the West Bank and off the coast of Gaza. Palestinians have to buy water from Israel, even though Israel uses water from Palestinian aquifers and supplies extra water to Israeli settlements over Palestinian towns.

Palestinian telecommunications could support a thriving economy if it weren’t for heavy Israeli restrictions. Despite equipment waiting in Israeli warehouses for years, 3G cellphone service was launched in the West Bank in only 2018, and it still hasn’t been brought to Gaza. Both areas have not had access to 4G yet.

If the goal of the Bahrain conference and the economic plan is economic, there is a much easier way forward. The Trump administration should push Israel to lift these restrictions and allow for free movement of people and goods so that the Palestinian economy has the chance to prosper.

This reality-based approach could go a long way toward improving the Palestinian economy and setting up the opportunities to talk about the political track. It would obviously require the Trump administration to truly engage with the Palestinian leadership, instead of its current attempts to bypass it. This, along with reopening of the Palestinian mission in Washington (which was ordered to close in September 2018), would be a step in the right direction to renew dialogue — one that is built not on preconceived ideas or refurbished Israeli plans, but on a genuine effort to hear out all parties and help them find a peaceful solution to bring long-term freedom and prosperity to Palestinians.

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